Digital Preservation in Canadian Museums

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July 2013

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) recently undertook a survey of its members on the topic of digital preservation. The survey was designed to learn about members’ digital assets, their digital preservation practices, and their training needs. The findings of the survey are now available in the report Digital Preservation in Canadian Museums. The report provides an overview of the information received, as well as an analysis of the results, on a question-by-question basis.

Survey Methodology

Email invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 1,377 CHIN member organizations. Those that responded were given access to an online survey form. The survey was available online for 6 weeks, from September 1 to October 13, 2011.

In all, 158 surveys were completed in full and another 149 were partially completed. In all, 307 surveys provided usable data, representing a response rate of 22.3%.

Organizational Profiles

Survey responses were distributed geographically as follows: 14 from Alberta; 25 from British Columbia; 9 from Manitoba; 11 from New Brunswick; 6 from Newfoundland and Labrador; 10 from Nova Scotia; 2 from Nunavut; 1 from the Northwest Territories; 32 from Ontario; 2 from Prince Edward Island; 26 from Quebec; 7 from Saskatchewan; and 4 from Yukon. Compared to the provincial/territorial breakdown of CHIN’s membership, all the provinces were slightly under-represented in their survey participation, while the territories were proportionally or slightly over-represented.

Responses indicated that organizations from every budget category, from $0 to over $4,000,000, responded to the survey. This confirms that a representative sampling of organizations, in budgetary terms, is represented in the survey results.

Survey Findings

One of the most important, and worrying, facts to emerge from the survey is that there are museums that do not have the resources to even complete an inventory of their digital assets.

Most CHIN members now create at least some of their records in digital form, and the vast majority of respondents (277 of 307) have digital assets. Most respondents use a small number of widely adopted software packages; not surprisingly, image software is the most used software type (300 respondents), but it is noteworthy that museums commonly have their collections management data in digital form (218 respondents). Significant numbers of museums have digital content that would be difficult (157 responses) or impossible (166 responses) to replace, and this material is the clear priority for immediate digital preservation initiatives.

There is a high level of awareness of the danger of data loss among Canadian museums. No doubt this is because 37% of the respondents have lost access to computer files at some point. Despite this, few organizations (10.4%) test on a regular basis to see if the digital content they have remains accessible (e.g., if they can still read the files on a drive).

The amount of digital content preserved on obsolete storage formats is quite low (418 7/9-track tapes, 28 8-inch diskettes and 118 5 ¼-inch diskettes), and little of this content is important enough to require preservation. Most of the digital content held by museums is kept on digital storage formats that qualify as current technology: for example, respondents listed a total of 27,945 external hard drives and 36,000 CDs or DVDs. This material will eventually need to be re-copied to ensure its preservation, but the situation is not yet an emergency and there is time to plan for phased projects.

Encouragingly, many respondents (40%) have access to multiple storage locations. Similarly, many organizations (139 respondents) have access to specialized storage spaces. Nonetheless, some respondents remain unfamiliar with the storage conditions that their organizations use; nearly 5% do not even know the temperature and relative humidity in their storage space(s).

In terms of improving their knowledge and skills in the area of digital preservation, the two training needs that respondents felt they needed most were “Preservation strategies and tools” and “Digitization.” Interestingly, many survey respondents appear not to know if they have the right to undertake preservation activities such as copying or file format conversion on their digital assets.

Digital Preservation Toolkit

In response to the issues identified in the Digital Preservation Survey, CHIN is releasing a Digital Preservation Toolkit. This suite of documents will provide practical advice on identifying digital materials held by museums, the risk and impact of loss, and how to get started in the development of preservation policies, plans and procedures.

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