the Alamo, in the middle of San Antonio
PHOTO: Sarah J

I recently returned from the 2018 AIIM Conference in San Antonio. While there, I visited the Alamo. An old Spanish mission constructed in the 1700s, the Alamo was the scene of several battles including a famous last stand that didn’t end well for the defenders. Almost two centuries later, you can visit the site, which sits in the middle of the city, and view a lot of artifacts. What you don't get however, is a full sense of the battle. The Alamo is missing some of its original outer walls and its artillery placements, and it now has a roof — which didn't exist during its infamous battles.

Preservation of another type came up in discussions at the AIIM conference: digital preservation. Whether you need to preserve information for business or historical reasons, long-term digital preservation is an issue that eventually affects everyone. While preservation poses many different challenges, one thing is clear: people are not working to preserve their digital information.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The average organization is focused on producing and capturing information. While some types of information may fall under some sort of control, for example invoices, many more types are still not fully managed. Too often information is stored in such a way that only the creator and those with a sharing link in email can find it.

Across the board, when information is no longer needed for active work, it fades from memory. You may remember where an email or document from two years ago resides, but it will undoubtedly take you longer to find it than anticipates. And if it falls to someone else to find it, they will likely waste an entire afternoon before giving up.

As time passes, the challenge to find any given piece of information increases. While the odds you will need the information also decreases, its value and importance when you do need it will grow. As critical evidence, a piece of history, or part of a large collection of artifacts for trend analysis, rarity can increase information’s value. The new challenge is being able to access the information.

Evolving Formats Leave a Trail of Broken Docs

Before Microsoft owned the word processing world, there was WordPerfect. Before that, WordStar. I used WordStar until I was forced to switch to WordPerfect. I then resented it for killing off my preferred application.

I also hated bringing my old documents into WordPerfect. Formatting was lost and strange characters were sometimes inserted. Moving to Word was just as bad, but in that case some of my older documents became completely unreadable.

This issue has carried over into my client work. We were always making sure the default document viewer for a system could handle all the legacy formats. While not ideal, we started making progress in being able to access our old documents. Later, the PDF/A standard was introduced. For now, PDF/A has given us a stable format.

Of course, PDF/A doesn’t help with audio, video or other complex formats. Presentations and spreadsheets lose information from animations, notes and formulas. Track changes and annotations also disappear. All we are doing is stopping the bleeding.

Speed of Change Makes Digital Preservation Even Harder

Have you looked at your organization’s website lately? How often do you capture what is displayed? When you updated the leadership page because Susan moved on, did you delete her from the site or simply unpublish her information? All those content chunks that comprise each page, have you captured what they look like when assembled together?

The business impact for not being able to prove what was said at any given time may not matter if you aren’t making promises to clients or selling things directly on your website. Perhaps your website only changes once a month. But what if you’re Amazon? Or the Washington Post? How is personalization changing what is showed to a person? What ads are being displayed that might change the context of the entire page? Can you track that?

Things change fast on today’s internet and keeping track of it all is a tricky process at best. As sites change and links expire, the gaps in our digital preservation efforts become even greater.

Gone and Quite Probably Forgotten

Corrupt storage, incompatible formats, small fires, flooded basements: all of these destroy information every day. These are factors we cannot just ignore.

In an industry that at times seems obsessed with deleting old, unnecessary information, digital preservation doesn’t get much attention. Large corporations may have issues capturing that “first dollar” for display, but when they are 50 or 60 years old, they may want a copy of that first contract.

History aside, while we as a society no longer employs people for life, having employee records going back 20 years isn’t unheard of. Your first client could be a 10-year client. Do you have all those records accessible?

So by all means, focus on transforming and digitizing your business. But while you're doing this, think about the future. What can you do to make sure the information you create today is accessible in five, 10 or 50 years? You may not need to do anything immediately, but the clock is ticking.

Once information is gone, it’s gone. There's no going back in time.