Are we there yet?

By: Kara Van Malssen
August 5, 2016

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve had Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ in my head. You too?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about organizations who haven’t started with digital preservation yet, and it’s got me wondering…why?

Let me put some parameters around “started” by looking at Anne R. Kenney and Nancy McGovern’s “The Five Organizational Stages of Digital Preservation.” When this article was written in 2003, it really was the early days of digital preservation, and many organizations were still charting their course, and thinking about how to get to the next level of maturity. These 5 levels provided a clear assessment of the behavioral stages that organizations tended to pass through along the journey. If you were not even at stage 1 yet, hey, that was ok, it was 2003! Just to put that in perspective, in 2003…

YouTube didn’t exist yet (in fact, there really wasn’t much video on the web)

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Most of us still had CRT TVs

And camera phones were still not a thing in the U.S. (although they were in Japan, where I actually lived at the time. I thought I was super cool because none of my friends back home had a camera phone).


Or, to use a digital preservation perspective, the OAIS Reference Model was originally published the year prior! We were still trying to raise awareness of the fact that digitization is not equivalent to digital preservation; that we probably shouldn’t store things on optical media for the long-term; and that if it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to last.

For those of you unfamiliar with this excellent essay, I suggest you take a look at it and see where you feel your organization falls on the spectrum. The 5 stages it describes are:

1. Acknowledge: Understanding that digital preservation is a local concern
2. Act: Initiating digital preservation projects;
3. Consolidate: Segueing from projects to programs;
4. Institutionalize: Incorporating the larger environment; and
5. Externalize: Embracing inter-institutional collaboration and dependency.

Fast forward 13 years to today. In 2016, I find myself returning to this text again and again when working with organizations of all sizes and types, assessing their digital preservation readiness. At AVPreserve, we are often asked to come in when an organization is between stages 2–3, to help with that big shift from projects to programs. This is a really tough one, as it requires institution-level thinking, which requires acknowledgement and support from senior management, which requires making a lot of noise, which requires having a plan for how the program should look . . . and so on.

And yet, occasionally, we talk to folks who are just coming around to stage 1. And I start to get curious. Why, in 2016, is this organization only starting to acknowledge that digital preservation is a concern of theirs? Is it because they are very small, or only have a very small collection of digital materials? Is it because they don’t have the expertise in house? Is preservation not historically part of their mission? Is it because they are actually doing digital preservation pretty well, even at a stage 3 or 4, just not calling it that (some larger organizations without an innate preservation mission tend to fall into this category)? And if they are not in the latter category, what will it take for these organizations who are just starting out to succeed? Digital preservation takes resources: policy and procedure, skilled staff, technical infrastructure. Even if you outsource the bulk of the work, you still have to pay the bills to ensure that the data is cared for over time, which means you have to acknowledge that the preservation of that data is a fundamental function of your organization, and you take the responsibility. Indefinitely. Or figure out who can take care of it if you can’t anymore. It’s work. Someone at the organization is just realizing this now.

Rather than speculate here on all the reasons why organizations may just be starting today, I’m hoping to get answers from the community. And by “started” with digital preservation, I mean stage 1. So, for those of you just starting, I guess I’m wondering . . . why are you starting with digital preservation now? And where are you stuck? And what are your goals? Feel free to quickly send an anonymous answer (promise, there will be no judgement), here. No account creation or logging in is necessary because, in 2016, who has time for that? I hope that over time we can collect enough information to understand what kinds of organizations/projects/groups/individuals fall into this category and how we at AVPreserve and the rest of the digital preservation community can provide the best support. We would also love to hear from people that are in later stages and have insights that they are willing to share on these questions.

Thanks in advance for your input!


Kara Van Malssen