Digital preservation / Fellowship

Digital Preservation and the Cultural Heritage Institution

This post was written by Heidi Elaine Dowding, Dumbarton Oaks’ National Digital Stewardship Resident. Her project focused on developing a holistic digital asset management solution for a diverse cultural heritage institution.  You can find her online at @theglobal_lib.

As part of my work as the Library of Congress’ National Digital Stewardship Resident at Dumbarton Oaks, I recently presented a workshop on local best practices for digital preservation in the hopes of starting a more structured program of conservation and care for the institution’s digital assets.  This was conceived after my initial research found that staff knowledge of local practices was ad hoc, and differed by both department and individual.  The intention of the workshop was to bridge the learning gap by presenting some concrete suggestions for dealing with the current environment and also to begin an institution-wide conversation around the topic.

Digital preservation is still a relatively burgeoning field of research even though it’s been around for nearly a century, and because the technical infrastructure is fragile and continually changing, solutions and staff have to remain agile and hyper-vigilant at the sign of any potential threats.


No one ever sees him coming.

Some of the suggestions I provided in the digpres workshop were particular to the local environment at Dumbarton Oaks, but I thought I’d share some of the more general suggestions here:

First and foremost, everyone, always, everywhere should


This is paramount.  A funny thing happened to me while I was actually working on project-related materials on my laptop at home over the holidays: my computer crashed.  Luckily I’m pretty vigilant about backing up to the cloud, but I would have lost a few hours of pertinent work had it not been for a very helpful Apple store employee.

Things happen.  Technology fails.  People hit delete.



It’s important to store and manage multiple copies on different devices (and preferably in different geographic locations, if it’s really essential), in order to avoid losing any time, money, work, and sanity.

Second, awareness of file formats and their particular challenges can help to avoid unnecessary data migration later.

Dumbarton Oaks currently has nearly 300 file formats in use around the institution, which make it really hard to manage and preserve all of the information contained within the institution’s 8TB.  While you can’t ever fully anticipate how long a file format will last, there are several steps you can take to ensure longevity of a file.  First, store items in a non-proprietary format.  Second, migrate objects to the latest format or version to avoid obsolescence.  While this applies more to digital assets than it does to everyday files, it’s important to at least have a basic understanding of best practices.  JISC offers several helpful guides outlining these suggestions in more detail.  They can be found here.

And finally, always document your decisions.  A good digital preservation plan is nothing unless someone stepping into the institution from outside can understand the practices that you’ve established and work accordingly.

The full Digital Preservation Workshop (complete with a quiz) is now online and available here:


Click here to launch the Digital Preservation Workshop by Heidi Dowding

If you work at a cultural heritage institution, you probably face a few of these same challenges yourself.  What has your institution done to prepare staff for preservation in the digital world?  What solutions have been successful so far, and what has fallen flat?  

Information sharing across institutional borders is key to moving forward in digital preservation, so please add your comment here or start a conversation on Twitter.


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