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Archivist details digital preservation while working from home


DIBS circa 1991
DIBS cheers on the men's basketball team during a game in March 1991. Men's basketball games from the 1990s were among the files Special Collections and Archives worked to digitize over the last year. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
​​Preservation often is viewed as a reaction to slow down degradation, a reaction to fix deterioration, a reaction to save something. However, another way to view preservation is through a proactive approach of care. Preservation requires constant assessment, refinement and action in order to overcome the challenges of constant change. Digital preservation at DePaul Special Collections and Archives has pivoted over the past year, as a reaction to the current circumstances of the pandemic and what is still possible. Without access to our collections, the ability to proactively monitor, assess and act on the needs of our materials became difficult.

​So how did we adjust and pivot? We took at-risk physical materials, specifically audio and visual-based magnetic tapes, and preserved them in the most accessible and protective way. These materials were mostly inaccessible due to hardware obsolescence going back decades. Actions we took prior to the pandemic, such as creating an inventory of all the audio-visual material holdings in Special Collections and Archives, allowed us to plan and prioritize materials for digitization based on factors such as format accessibility, potential degradation due to age and condition, and researcher usage of particular collections.

We outsourced digitization due to our inability to continuously access materials during the campus closures. Once we received the digitized materials, with the 12 boxes of original physical materials delivered to our homes, we began to assess and ascertain the collection. Materials included Betacam, VHS, U-matic and additional magnetic tape formats. The files constituted a wide variety of content from nine collections and included oral histories, news broadcasts, presentations and even some DePaul men's basketball games from the 1990s.

We also received the digital versions of the files on two external hard drives, including both preservation and access versions of the files. Preservation files are digitized at higher resolution and on more stable formats - MKV for video and WAV for audio - with very specific parameters that adhere to professional best practices. Accessible versions are created as lower resolution derivatives from the preservation files in more common formats - MP4 for video and MP3 for audio.

There are more than 450 files totaling six terabytes of data. Using the assessment and descriptive information created by our students and staff, we will polish the quality of the files, describe and process them more fully within our collections, and move toward making the materials readily accessible for researchers.

Accomplishing this project while working remotely, away from our collections, was challenging, but it also was an opportunity to adapt our practices, provide meaningful work for students and extend our capabilities.   It also has enabled additional widescale digitization projects and future digital preservation activities. For now, we will continue to preserve digital materials, then adjust, reassess and act on the needs of the materials.​