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No one is arguing that we aren't an increasingly digital culture, both at work and at home. The digital assets that we create for business, personal and educational purposes are quickly replacing the books, tapes, CDs, newspapers and magazines that most of us grew up with.

This month we've learned about the importance of DAM for publishers, for customer engagement, and how the management of digital assets is morphing into a profession, and learned about common use cases for any business.

But where will it all go when we're done with it? There's a disturbing lack of serious discussion among content producers and consumers about any of the long-term preservation challenges we face as “born digital” content overtakes treeware content.

It seems like every day brings news of yet another new VC-funded photo or video sharing app. But we hear very little news about serious investment in digital preservation work for everyday individual and commercial needs. As with any electronic content created for business purposes, digital assets used for online engagement, education, marketing have a shelf-life for usefulness. What then?

Very few creators or users of digital assets for marketing or online customer engagement purposes think beyond retention and preservation issues other than to keep it in case they need it again some day.

What kind of lifecycle is being designed for these visually or aurally compelling communication artifacts? And no, applying disposal rules coming from a records management department of the search-and-destroy mindset inspired by the era of e-discovery is not going to help us.

Deleting the asset library one year after the marketing campaign ends sounds perfectly reasonable from typical records management perspective. Obsolete, storage-heavy electronic content that has outlived its business usefulness? Blow it away lest the lawyers ask for it one day.

Three Challenges Facing the Preservation of Digital Assets

There are three issues that have the potential to mess with our digital legacy:

Hardware and Software Obsolescence

This is happening already. With every major update to a proprietary content authoring tool, we risk the ability to open older formats over the long term.

Public sector and archives institutions who worry about this build migration and conversion budget into their operations specifically to keep up with changing formats and equipment. How many enterprises or individuals plan for this? How many other people out there can't retrieve their Master's thesis off a floppy drive?

Few Mainstream Digital Preservation Efforts

There are some very important initiatives being done in the public sector, museums, foundations and academic institutions. Examples include open standards work at OASIS for open document and interoperability standards, the Internet Memory Foundation that is capturing European government web and digital assets, as well as work being done at the University of Chicago to preserve online virtual worlds. But where's the DAM and content management vendor community in this work?

No Governance for Digital Assets on the Web

How do we get our company or personal digital assets from a third party sharing or social network site when that site disappears into the ether? How many of us really understand the terms of service for most of the external sites we frequent on a regular basis? Who's preserving, protecting or building conversion plans for “our” content? What is the strategy for using open standards for file formats and metadata? Is it worth asking as part of a long term management strategy for our digital assets?

Electronic Ephemera will be the Historian's Delight in the Next Century

We've all had our Nancy Drew moment. Uncovering the secret stash of letters in a dusty attic or finding a note from decades ago in a second-hand book. Content not meant for present day eyes, but providing an unexpected thrill of insight into how people before us communicated.

Digital assets created for commercial or even just personal use are often generated for short term purposes. The conference video, the design for a webinar, a candid photo snapped and uploaded in moments to a social network site. Artifacts such as these often do not have any plan for retention or preservation; they are tactical in nature.

These glimpses into our commercial and human behaviors, however, serve as the color commentary to our social and cultural histories. How will the historian of the 22nd century be able to find, access and interpret the digital assets that best represent our professional and personal activities? What tools will they use to look at them, play them or hear them?

Preservation of digital assets is not a mainstream concern, but it is starting to creep into our consciousness. Initiatives to capture early online games are getting press, because it appeals to the nostalgia of the current generation of business and tech leaders. Nostalgia has power. Finding the source code for the Prince of Persia in the back of the closet makes news.

But are games from the early 1990s really more important than the web sites of our community groups? More important than capturing the branding and intellectual property from companies who disappeared a decade ago? How will we assess the economic history of the late 20th/early 21st centuries without access to the electronic residue of our daily lives as consumers, workers, students and citizens?

Maybe it is a time for a call to action, for those of us who create and value the media assets that technology allows us to create and share. Put some of our cognitive surplus to work, as information professionals, and start tackling this looming problem.

Title image courtesy of Andrzej Sowa (Shutterstock).

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