Digital preservation – The cost of doing nothing

Author: Barbara Sierman
Originally posted on:


Lately there was much debate on the fact that over the years the digital preservation community mastered to create a collection of more than a dozen of cost models, making the confusion for every one starting in digital preservation even bigger. May be this is part of the way things are going: everyone sees his own situation as something special with special needs. The solution? Tayloring an existing model or developing a new one. We can expect help from the recently started European project 4C ,”The Collaboration to Clarify the Costs of Curation”. In their introduction they state that “4C reminds us that the point of this investment [in digital preservation] is to realise a benefit”. Less emphasis on the complexity of digital preservation, and more on the benefits.

Some people think that talking about digital preservation in terms of complexity and costs sounds more negative than thinking in terms of opportunities (or challenges) and benefits. But in both cases, you will need the same hard-core figures about the costs you make as an organisation and the benefits that raise from it. The latter is not easy to do, but the work of Neil Beagrie and his team shows that it will be possible to measure the benefits.

If we would have better figures of the benefits of preserving digital material, we are in a better position to estimate what it will cost us if digital material is not preserved. Of letting digital objects die, be it intentionally or not.  How much damage is done to society if crucial information is not preserved?  Recently the question was raised that some interesting websites, containing the research results of a project that lasted for several years,  might not be harvested and preserved in a digital archive. Consequence of this would be a tremendous loss for the community in the related research discipline. This is clearly an incentive for preservation!

I remember that when the Planets project was proposed, it was argued that the obsolescence of digital information in Europe,  in case no action to preserve it would be taken, could cost the community an astonishing amount of 3 billion euro a year. I could not find a source for this assumption, only a reference to some articles. One of them described the amount of data that was created worldwide. The other article described the costs for an organization if lacking proper tools to manage data (getting access, searching,  not finding etc). It could be that the Planets assumption derived from this information was used as an illustration to make the case for digital preservation (the amount of stories in the Atlas of Digital Damages does not prove this assumption).

But in essence, it are these kind of figures (and their related evidence) we also need to have at hand. Not only demonstrating the costs of digital preservation, but also demonstrating what it would cost society if we did not preserve things.

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