‘At-risk Digital Materials’  

By Kate Foster Boyd

In Digital Collections, we scan and create digital files from analog materials every day.  It is exciting and fun to make these rare and special collections, such as old maps, diaries, books, and photographs available online for a wide audience.  The University of South Carolina Libraries has been digitizing special collections for fifteen years. Not long, but long enough to watch as archives have begun grappling with born digital materials, faculty have asked for the Libraries to preserve their digital projects, and donors have requested that their emails and social media be preserved. 

USC Libraries’ Special Collections are receiving digital at-risk materials more and more. Irvin Department of Rare Books now has a few collections from current or recently deceased authors that are on hard drives. One donor has requested that their social media be saved, and two collections have email preservation needs. South Carolina Political Collections receives a lot of their collections on hard drives. University Archives must manage digital photography, born digital reports, and web site preservation. The management of these new types of digital materials require new skills and processes by the curators and archivists. 

Some of our most at-risk materials are current newspapers in our state. About a year ago, several of us received phone calls and emails from vendors telling us they would no longer send microfilm copies of the newspaper titles we purchased, only the digital files. This has prompted many meetings and much discussion about next steps with managing modern newspaper access and preservation. We are currently working on new workflows for acquiring and making available these online, digital resources. 

The Libraries has made efforts to preserve digital information and materials for years. Initial backups were on CD-ROMS and then a RAID server. Policies and procedures have been formed through attending conferences and joining appropriate consortia, like LOCKSS, MetaArchive, the POWRR Workshop, and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, and following the Library of Congress and the Digital Preservation Coalition’s web sites. We are now following the North East Document Conservation Center’s latest handbook, working on updating our policy and workflows, ensuring people know their roles and the administration supports our efforts. A colleague is investigating Archivematica, an open-source application for processing archival materials, and better cloud storage solutions. Digital preservation is not done once, but constantly. As Trevor Owen’s says in his book, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, it is a vocation.  

My hope is that starting in 2020, we will have a solid plan for preserving this digital material into the future. Software, web sites, email, research data, digital collections, date sets, born digital documents, and more are all a concern and academic libraries must have a plan for taking care of these formats. To me, if the collections are made accessible by librarians and used by patrons, there is a chance that they will be maintained into the future. When people stop studying and learning from these materials, then they will disappear.