Review: Preserving Digital Materials (2018)

Stephen Klein

Ross Harvey and Jaye Weatherburn. Preserving Digital Materials. Third edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 249 pages. Paper. $45.00 USD.

The third edition of Preserving Digital Materials could easily serve as the foundational tome of digital preservation; synthesizing the full spectrum of approaches and practices for individuals and institutions who are either beginning to think about or are approaching full maturity in regards to establishing a digital preservation program.

Because the digital preservation landscape has grown and radically changed since 2005, the time of the first edition, and 2012, the second edition’s date, the authors’ explain the need for the new edition factoring in the latest and most authoritative literature and information garnered from blogs and other social media in the field, showcasing international initiatives and case studies, noting new stakeholders and finally reflecting on previous predictions and attempting to make new predictions at this current moment of almost maturation.

Ross Harvey and Jaye Weatherburn are encyclopedic in their breadth and depth of coverage; painstakingly surveying and reviewing the digital preservation landscape. After thoroughly setting the table explaining the urgent need for digital preservation by walking readers through a historical overview, with some philosophical flourishes, the authors then focus in on the empirical by surveying the circumstances of why digital preservation is only beginning to reach fuller maturity by sharing in detail strategic and procedural suggestions and decisions, practical considerations, institutional preservation policies and case studies, communities and other support resources, current and future challenges thus contextualizing the opportunities and limits toward ideal digital preservation. The authors detail how cultivated decisions need to be made even if the OAIS Reference Model is embraced and followed, because the model is fairly abstracted and does not actually suggest granular workflows; thus, emphasizing during our current era of preservation there are actually no turnkey solutions or explicitly didactic approaches.

Harvey and Weatherburn spend great time on the concept of “selection.” Selection no only refers to the “collections” that are saved, but actually what and how much within those collections is saved; is merely saving the bitstream good enough or should the original media, software, drivers, operating and hardware itself be preserved and is emulation ready for primetime? While possibly providing a better assurances that the bitstream might be able to be accessed and read in the future, however, as the authors thoroughly explain, preserving more of the context of the bitstream also has huge labor, resource and financial costs and implications while providing no ultimate guarantees for access and continued data integrity.

Similar to their discussion of selection, Harvey and Weatherburn are incredibly nuanced regarding applied processes and workflows, emphasizing that practitioners need to understand each digital asset has a unique context and appraisal is an important part of the process, because as the author’s quote Michele Cloonan’s assertion that “digital objects force us to preserve them on their own terms” (61) to illustrate that although there might be some general best practices in the background, each asset will require specific decision making in regards to how much to save and how for each specific preservation project. Not only the copying and possible refreshing, replication and migration of bitstreams, but because preservation level metadata needs to created, documenting the processes that went into preserving digital assets so context is provided, authenticity of files checked and checksums created algorithmically to snapshot the actual bits prior to placing into cold storage and normalization and conversion rules to consider and implement, means even a primitive level of digital preservation will require great institutional commitment of labor and finances to sustain preservation.

Finally, because it contains copious citations, all assertions are not only substantiated, but also provide further background reading and resources enabling readers, researchers and actual practitioners to easily get lost going down various rabbit-holes, if desired. Preserving Digital Materials should be a mandatory a back-office source text for archive, museum and library professionals, who may not even have an active digital preservation program, providing an essential context to the complexities of the digital landscape where preservation is still the wild-west, and almost insurmountable in regards to the multiplicity of considerations.

As someone not formally trained and sort of new to the field, Harvey and Weatherburn’s comprehensive survey is a good companion and tool for advocacy validating and confirming many of my suspicions and instincts regarding the possibilities, practices and workflows, extrapolated from other professional experiences.

Stephen Klein is the Digital Services Librarian at Graduate Center Library, CUNY.

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