Where is our Atlas of Digital Damages?

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.


  1. Euan Cochrane October 17, 2012

    Noticed the link to the flickr collection hadn’t been posted here yet so here you go:

    The Atlas of Digital Damages

  2. Lauren Sorensen September 21, 2012

    Great post, thanks. I agree that this is a hugely needed resource.

    This resource isn’t exactly what you’re discussing but in the small world of moving image preservation, there is the AV (Audiovisual) Artifact Atlas, a partner project that my org, Bay Area Video Coalition, along with Stanford and NYU collaborated on building and keeping updated.


    There are some analog artifacts (many that are not preventable due to deterioration and aging playback equipment) and some born digital examples there, related to moving images and audio. We hope to expand this resource in coming years!

  3. Ben Fino-Radin September 18, 2012

    There seems to be solid consensus (both here, and Twitter) on the need for such a resource.

    If I may add my two cents – as the intended goal of such a resource is not solely documentation, but primarily, outreach, education, effective advocacy and communication to stakeholders outside of the preservation community, I feel there is a need for such a resource to be highly visual, and accessible both from a technical jargon perspective, and from a usability perspective. The idea of using a semantic wiki-style platform was tossed out on Twitter (https://twitter.com/anjacks0n/status/247020077206093824), which could work of course, but I think a platform that is more visually oriented, and flexible with regard to visual design is key. Perhaps WordPress? Tumblr would be a stretch, but could certainly go far in terms of dissemination. Should such a resource place an emphasis on semantic tidy-ness, or ease of contribution and sharing? Ideally both, but I have yet to see a wiki that pulls this off.

    I can not truly speak for my peers in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, but I am willing to bet that members of the Content Working Group would be very interested in contributing. In any event, with a band of willing contributors having formed, shall we take the conversation somewhere else to hash out the nitty gritty?

    • admin September 18, 2012

      I would be much in favor of this, may be at IPRES, I’ll be there

    • Andy Jackson September 19, 2012

      I agree that the ‘atlas’ itself needs to be direct, accessible and visual. I only meant to suggest that something like a wiki might be a good way of collecting the examples – i.e. something the visualisation might be generated from. My feeling is that the first step is to start sharing examples, and see where that leads.

      I’m also at iPres – it would be good to discuss this there.

  4. Paul Wheatley September 15, 2012

    Great post and comments. This page isn’t perhaps quite the Atlas you’re after but it attempts to address some of the points made:

    As Euan notes it’s critical that we capture evidence about preservation challenges and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of solutions. Dave Taz has also been doing some useful groundwork for this, which I think will turn out to be quite significant in us making progress in this field.

  5. Euan Cochrane September 14, 2012

    Thanks for the mention Barbara.

    I love your idea of an atlas of digital damages, it is something that the digital preservation community is always looking for. As you say, examples of the risks of implementing effective digital preservation strategies are very useful when seeking funding to implement such strategies, or simply when trying to explain what digital preservation is.
    I had an experience earlier this year when the loss of some digital information nearly impacted on some work I was involved with (http://openplanetsfoundation.org/blogs/2012-01-03-digital-archaeology-and-forensics ) the site mentioned in that post (http://www.ctosfaq.com/?f) and which contained vital information for the project we were working on, vanished during the course of the project. Luckily we had retrieved the information earlier on but it was a close call!

    The lack of comprehensive testing of digital preservation strategies really bothers me. I tried to apply a degree of rigor in the tests in that report to demonstrate that although in principle (or conceptually) some strategies can seem to be effective, in practice, when you methodically test the results of them, you can find them lacking.

    I would love to have others replicate those tests for other files and other environments. I like to think they would make great “lab experiments” for digital preservation students and that would be a way to get the results extended to a wider sample.

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