Digital Preservation of Research Data

Trough of Disillusionment
UMN Assessment
Time Frame
5 to 10 Years
Last Updated on Sep 12, 2014

Historically, the standard set by paper and ink for recording and preserving information has been exemplary. Stored properly, printed material has been remarkably stable for hundreds of years. Digital media however, have been with us for a very short time, and already, information stored on older digital media (punch cards, floppy disk, magnetic tape, even certain kinds of hard disk) and with certain encoding formats (for example older digital camera raw picture files, including those from past NASA space missions) have proved difficult—in some case, impossible—to read since original hardware and software have been lost or challenging to resurrect.

Digital preservation is important especially for scholarly and research data sets, which need to be archived and maintained in a form that will ensure our being able to read it in the future. Digital preservation means more than simply copying such data into cloud storage somewhere.  The storage must be designed and funded in such a way as to persist for the foreseeable future. This means periodically re-copying data to new media: the storage life of magnetic or optical media is limited; spinning or solid-state media wear out and break down. It may also mean re-coding data into a new format without losing any information, as an old format fades into obsolescence and software to read it gets hard to find.  For example images in PICT or MacPaint format are hard to render after only 30 years, and while it seems that MP3 or PDF formats will last forever, they probably won't. Any important data in these formats will have to be converted into common formats of the future if they are to remain accessible.

Digital preservation efforts
Unfortunately, as Gartner points out, digital preservation efforts don't get the attention they should because of "perceived high total cost of ownership (TCO) and a lack of monetary ROI." In other words while the efforts can be expensive, they don't produce flashy, visible results and are seen as dowdy and dull compared to new technology.

Universities, and especially their libraries, are paying attention to the preservation of scholarly digital data.  At the University of Minnesota, the Libraries Digital Conservancy works toward this need.  Organizations such as Duraspace and the Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) are also striving to keep our digital heritage accessible.