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Sustainable Digital Heritage

What is the problem?

Google CEO Vint Cerf put it as follows during a presentation in 2015:

Digital material including key historical documents could be lost forever because programs to view them will become defunct […]
Ancient civilisations suffered no such problems, because histories written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, or rolled papyrus scrolls, needed only eyes to read them. To study today’s culture, future scholars would be faced with PDFs, Word documents, and hundreds of other file types that can only be interpreted with dedicated software and sometimes hardware too.

There is hardly any part of society that digitization in one form or another does not have a grip on. From medical science to entertainment, from the automotive industry to communication, from agriculture to legislation; digital techniques, digital information and digital representations of that information are used everywhere. This digitization leads to ever more information. Creating and capturing large amounts of digital information is much easier than it has ever been for information on paper. Digital information is, however, also very vulnerable.

Vulnerability of digital information

Digital files consist of sequences of ones and zeros (010100001011110). The loss of one of those characters, for example due to a malfunction, is enough to render the entire file useless because the information will be unreadable. Digital files are abracadabra without computers and software. They actually only work well with the computer and software on which they were created. When a new computer is introduced, there is a chance that the old files will no longer work. Of course suppliers try to provide facilities for converting files to the new computer, but those conversion tools are still far from perfect and errors are almost inevitable.

Digital preservation pictured by Barbara Sierman

Limited shelf life of information carriers

In addition to the vulnerability of the files themselves, there is the vulnerability of the carriers on which the information is stored. They can fall into disuse (diskettes, floppy disks) or simply break down. Information that is on the internet is also at risk. Everyone knows the infamous “404 – File not found” error message. The information chain is broken when a website is moved or discontinued without providing a removal notice. Online information often does not have a unique location or unique immutable number to which you can refer. This is annoying for all internet users, but disastrous for the scientific community: references in scientific articles can no longer be consulted.

Ensuring sustainable access

Digital preservation is defined as a “series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary
(from: DPC Handbook). This definition is made up of three parts:

  1. It does not refer to a single action, but to a series of actions and activities which starts with creation and does not stop until the file is no longer needed.
  2. It concerns directed activities based on policy and vision.
  3. ‘For as long as necessary’: storing everything forever is not an option, because we cannot control that and it is often not desirable. The motto is to make targeted choices, and to think carefully about what should be available to whom for how long.

 To be able to oversee the long-term consequences, a constant awareness of digital sustainability is needed. This awareness manifests itself, among other things, in the distribution of tasks within the organisation, in the definition of a strategy for sustainable access to your own digital data and in the search for partnerships at a national or international level to promote sustainable data storage. Only when such choices are explicitly made can data be managed sustainably and a long-term approach be guaranteed.

Collaborating on digital preservation

In the Netherlands, efforts have been made in recent years to guarantee sustainable access to digital information, including digital heritage information. Since 2008, these efforts were conducted by institutions collaborating in the Netherlands Coalition for Digital Preservation (NCDD). After a period of close collaboration, the NCDD merged into the Dutch Digital Heritage Network on 1 March 2018.

Below you will find the knowledge and services (available in English) that have been delivered under the Sustainable Digital Heritage work programme (focusing on digital preservation) so far.



Linking knowledge

In the Netherlands and abroad, a great deal of knowledge has been gathered about digital preservation and subtopics within that theme. This is a non-exhaustive selection of these sources of knowledge (in English):


Your additions

Do you know other sources of knowledge that we can add to this overview? Please let us know via info@netwerkdigitaalerfgoed.nl.

More information

For more information, please contact Marcel Ras, domain manager Sustainable Digital Heritage, via marcel.ras@netwerkdigitaalerfgoed.nl or +31 6 14 77 76 71.


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