Sometimes we, digital preservation people, have a tough job to explain the surprises we come across. If similar situations would happen in the analogue or physical world, one might doubt our observation qualities. Who could imagine that a poem in a book that is on a shelf in a safe and monitored area, and is opened after a few years, suddenly has some new sentences in it, while no human being did add these sentences? Or that the title page has changed and that the special font, designed and chosen by a famous typographer, turned into a run-of-the-mill font, thus downgrading its aesthetic appearance? Again, without human interference. Panic would be huge if this would happen in our libraries and archives.
But these things happen in a digital environment.
Some nice and also scary examples are given in Euan Cochrane’s report Rendering Matters, http://archives.govt.nz/rendering-matters-report-results-research-digital-object-rendering (Archives New Zealand) This study describes the results of a comparison of rendering a set of files in different environments, among them also the recreated original environment with the original software. Preservation plans that put their cards on the relatively “safe” approach of migrating to or accessing the file in a higher version of the same software, or to the open source version (MS Office vs Open Office) will often be confronted with altered information, as is shown in the report. Checks based on word counts don’t appear reliable. And yes, a sentence in a poem was added, be it with a lot of “rubbish” that certainly was not intended to be a poetical line.
These examples can support us, when we try to convince those, responsible for collections. To think about what they want to preserve and what cannot be modified, added or lost without severe damage to the content. Evidence will convince. And we need far much more of it. Because showing these examples will make people more aware of what can happen to the digital objects, even when no one touches the objects and they were safely bit preserved.
These examples offer a chance to ask some fundamental questions, as what makes the original look and feel? What are the important elements in the digital object? What will be the effect of loosing these elements? Because there lies a real risk for the digital collections, but by making it visible with examples, it will be more convincing than all the conference papers that we have written about the digital preservation challenges.
After all, the collection care specialists in archives and libraries have their own guides with horrifying pictures of manuscripts damaged by mice and insects, ink and mould.
Let’s have our digital version of it! The Atlas of Digital Damages.