Collections Management

An Introduction to Digital Preservation for Museums

 Heather Dunn

By: Heather Dunn, ‎Heritage Information Analyst, Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN)


In 2011, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) conducted a survey to take stock of the digital assets held by its member museums.  A key finding of the survey was that most organizations have not produced any policy, plan or guidelines for the preservation of their digital assets.

As a result, CHIN has assembled a “Digital Preservation Toolkit”.  This toolkit, which can be found on CHIN’s Professional Exchange website, is a series of short documents that lay out the steps necessary for all digital preservation activities in a museum.   These tools help museums understand what preservation issues exist, the risk and potential impact associated with these issues, and how to go about addressing them.

Why is Digital Preservation Important?  How Does it Differ from Making Backups?

Digital preservation is often misunderstood.  It is often interpreted as merely the backing up and safekeeping of digital information.  Digital preservation is the active management of digital information over time to ensure its accessibility, and while making backups of a resource is certainly one important step in ensuring this accessibility, it is in itself, not enough.  Digital preservation also mitigates the risk of:

  • loss of file format readability as file standards change;
  • software incompatibility as software systems are replaced;
  • operating system incompatibility;
  • hardware incompatibility;
  • media degradation; and
  • threats to the storage location.


In addition to the risk factors that threaten complete loss of access to data, one must also consider how digitally preserved material is likely to be used in the future.   For instance, how frequently or urgently will it need to be accessed?  Will access be onsite, or from outside the museum? Who should have access to preserved data, and under what circumstances?  How is someone accessing this material years from now expected to know about usage terms, or copyright?  What supporting information must be preserved with the resource?  Who is expected to preserve the material, who maintains it, and who provides access to it?  What must those who provide or create content do to ensure proper preservation?  Most importantly, what are the costs of properly preserving your museums digital assets, and what are the potential costs of not preserving them? These and other considerations are the stuff of a digital preservation policy, and plan.

While most museums simply do not have the resources to invest in digital preservation activities typical of those carried out in the archival community, the cost of making no investment can often be greater.  The majority of CHIN’s membership consists of small-to-medium sized museums, and virtually none of these can undertake the activities practiced by trained archivists managing a fully implemented digital archive.  With that in mind, the resources in the CHIN Digital Preservation Toolkit do not prescribe specific archival software or protocols.  Instead, they alert museums to existing standards, pressing issues, and common mistakes, and encourage museums to “cover the bases” in whatever manner they can afford.

CHIN’s Digital Preservation Toolkit

The CHIN Digital Preservation Toolkit consists of the following resources:

Digital Preservation Inventory Template for Museums – produced by CHIN researchers, this template can be used by museum professionals to identify their digital assets, to scope out potential preservation issues, and to make informed decisions about the value of investing in digital preservation.

Digital Preservation Policy Framework Guideline – produced by Nancy McGovern, Head of Curation and Preservation Services at MIT, this policy framework can help identify what preservation activities should take place, by whom they will be undertaken, and why.

Digital Preservation Plan Framework for Museums – produced by CHIN, this framework was designed specifically for small to mid-sized museums, to help museums devise and implement a digital preservation action plan.

Digital Preservation Decision Trees – produced by CHIN to help museums decide what resources should be preserved.  They have been simplified to summarize major issues (long-term value, copyright, etc.) so that the entire decision process can be understood at a single glance.

Guidelines for Content Creators and Preservers –  developed by the InterPARES 2 project (  The Guidelines for Content Creators includes basic principles of software selection, file formats, identification of files, metadata, file security, physical carriers, backup procedures, and similar issues.  The Guidelines for Content Preservers provides advice on topics such as policy development, appraising records for preservation, acquiring records, preserving records, and providing access to preserved records.

Next Steps

The Digital Preservation Toolkit has been available on CHIN’s Professional Exchange website since spring of 2013.  However, CHIN is constantly working to improve it, and to add new tools to the kit.  If your museum is interested in providing feedback on the use of the tools, or participating in a case study, please contact CHIN.

Ern Bieman and Heather Dunn

Professional Development and Digital Resource Management, Canadian Heritage Information Network