Computer room at ESTEC in 1973 © ESA
Discussions on digitisation and preservation: digitised or born digital?
Tue, 27/02/2024 - 09:52

Over the last year, we have talked a lot about the results of the digitisation work undertaken by the Archives team, in particular for the opening of collections of newly digitised material. But we have not yet taken a closer look at the work that goes on behind the scenes to accomplish this. As a result we have conceived this short series of articles, which we will be publishing throughout 2024, to turn a spotlight on our digitisation and preservation activities. Today we explain a little bit more about what we mean by digitisation and digital preservation and introduce some very topical debates on the subject.

What is digitisation?

In the words of one of our team – it’s much more than just a scan!

Of course, put simply, digitisation means creating a digital file, or digital surrogate, from an analogue original like a photographic print or book, much as we do when we scan an image or document. But the process of digitisation also involves capturing, integrating and preserving other so-called metadata along with this file. Metadata includes its unique identifier, title, description, author, subject, copyright holder and the technical details of the file itself, such as date, format, dimensions and the person who conducted the digitisation. These metadata are an essential and integral part of the file, since without them, there would be no way to search for it and retrieve it from the archival database where it is stored!

In addition, there are many other processes that need to take place in advance of, or alongside this, to ensure correct and professional digitisation - particularly if this is taking place in a different location to the relevant archive. They include the preparation of complete lists of the material, and its packing for transportation. We’ll be taking a closer look at all the steps in the digitisation process in our next article.

Why do it?

Libraries, archives and museums have been conducting large-scale digitisation projects since the 1990s, allowing increased access to collections by opening them to the online world and removing geographical limitations. Digitisation also opens up new possibilities for research, education and cross-institutional collaboration, and can be an important tool in preservation activities. The creation of digital facsimiles of an object reduces stress on fragile originals (particularly formats like paper or parchment which are subject to environmental conditions), and can be a valuable insurance policy against technical obsolescence for data held in other formats, for example, for analogue recordings on cassettes or, as we touched on last December, information on microfilm or microfiche.

Introducing digital preservation

Having created digital copies, however, it is also vital to ensure that these digital files themselves are preserved and remain accessible, and that is where digital preservation comes in to play. In other words, digitisation and digital preservation are two distinct activities, although digitisation can be viewed as the first step in digital preservation.

Of course, digital preservation also applies to born-digital content. In the ESA Archives, the decision was made to begin our digital preservation activities with the ingestion of digital copies of ESA blue docs (the official papers for the meetings held with the Member States of ESA Council and its subordinate bodies) issued from the mid-2000s onwards. We’ll be dedicating more time to digital preservation later in the year in a separate article.

What are the risks?

The most recent article in our series on the history of preservation talked last December about microforms and touched briefly on the distinction between digitisation for preservation and digitisation for access. Our view is that digitisation is an incredibly valuable tool for widening access, rather than a one-stop solution for preservation.

Perhaps the difference can be best crystalised in a recent consultation launched by the UK Ministry of Justice, on its plans to destroy paper copies of historical wills following their digitisation and after 25 years, in a move that the Ministry claimed would make significant savings on the costs of storage for these documents.

In this scenario, the institution would be effectively locking itself into a continual cycle of keeping up with the ever-changing formats and systems for preserving digital files, exposing it to the threat of file corruption (also known as digital degradation) resulting in irrevocable loss of material, and the consequences of cyberattacks. (Such an attack, last autumn, against the British Library knocked out not just the national library’s digital services, but also the delivery of physical collection items in its reading rooms.) In just 30 years we have seen the introduction and touting of formats like floppy disks and CD ROMs, only to see them surpassed by the next, and it is unlikely that this pace of change will slow. As we noted in December in a household analogy, how many of us already have material in our homes on CDs or DVDs that we can no longer access?

Debate in the UK has centred on these issues, and a webinar hosted by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford earlier this month referenced the British Library attack as a “startling reminder of the ephemeral nature of the digital”. However, comment in the press has also highlighted how things can go wrong with the process of digitisation (for example, an accidental omission of a page or the reverse of a page) and the need to therefore maintain recourse to the originals. And it has also engaged in the debate about the value of the physical originals themselves to researchers or historians. After all, a digital file can capture only the content of, for example, a letter. It cannot replicate the tangible aspects of the object - the paper or ink used or even its smell.

Like most of our colleagues in the archives community, we would always argue for the continued preservation of the physical originals, since none of us can make failsafe predictions for the future! And we are grateful for our organisation’s commitment to the continued safeguarding of ESA’s institutional and material heritage.

Read more: (no paywall) (paywall) (paywall)

Getting into detail on processes and people

Next up in this series, we’ll take a closer look at the process of digitising a document and talk to some of the team involved in this work on behalf of ESA.