No, Digitization Is Preservation

With regular frequency, someone on Twitter or such will invariably refer to the preservation of collections through digitization. With equal frequency, some Archivist will respond or subtweet or such a “friendly reminder” (or Twitsplain, as I call it) that (all together now) digitization is not preservation.

But digitization is preservation.

Due to the short lifespan of audiovisual materials, reformatting has always been the standard form of preservation. Reformatting is the migration of content from one carrier (format) to another, whether that carrier is the same as or different from the original. In the past this was often tape-to-tape, film-to-film, or such. However, at this point in time, reformatting physical audio and video materials to file-based media (digitization) is the accepted practice to create preservation quality surrogates or such. Digitization is preservation. Without the new file, the content of the original would be lost due to decay and obsolescence.

So what’s the big deal, and how am I not simply guilty myself of Twitsplaining? The original Tweeters and the Archivists responding to the digitization proclamations are generally speaking in regards to paper / textual materials. This is a classification of material which has been reformatted in the past (microfilm, microfiche, digitization) mainly to save room (so originals may be discarded) or to create new avenues of access such as ‘digital archives’. Preservation is almost never a primary purpose of these projects and, given the lifespan of paper, needn’t be. Thus when a non-expert / non-Archivist makes some statement about preservation and digitization of paper, there is some consternation regarding the under-informed aspects of such a statement.

But digitization is preservation…For audiovisual materials. And this bears repeating over and over because the anti-digitization voice is much stronger and generally doesn’t include any nuance in regards to media type because the assumption is towards paper. When we speak about digitization for audio and video, we now are not speaking about simple online access. We are speaking about the continued viability, about the persistence and the existence of the media content. Access is always the primary component of archiving and preservation, but with audiovisual materials there will be (and already is in some cases) zero access without the digitization of collections.