Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation

Many people believe that what is on the Internet will be around forever. At the same time, warnings of an impending “digital dark age”—where records of the recent past become completely lost or inaccessible—appear with regular frequency in the popular press. It’s as if we need a system to safeguard our digital records for future scholars and researchers. Digital preservation experts, however, suggest that this is an illusory dream not worth chasing. Ensuring long-term access to digital information is not that straightforward; it is a complex issue with a significant ethical dimension. It is a vocation.

In The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, librarian Trevor Owens establishes a baseline for practice in this field. In the first section of the book, Owens synthesizes work on the history of preservation in a range of areas (archives, manuscripts, recorded sound, etc.) and sets that history in dialogue with work in new media studies, platform studies, and media archeology. In later chapters, Owens builds from this theoretical framework and maps out a more deliberate and intentional approach to digital preservation.

A basic introduction to the issues and practices of digital preservation, the book is anchored in an understanding of the traditions of preservation and the nature of digital objects and media. Based on extensive reading, research, and writing on digital preservation, Owens’s work will prove an invaluable reference for archivists, librarians, and museum professionals, as well as scholars and researchers in the digital humanities.

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What people are saying

“An indispensable handbook that will be kept close at hand―used, reached for, and above all really read by those seeking a conceptual framework through which to understand the practicalities of grappling with the complex new reality of digital objects. Opening up the most theoretically sophisticated body of research in digital platforms to an entirely new audience while simultaneously equipping that audience with the conceptual background they need to function as experts in today’s information environment, Owens’s book is a practical, even-handed, and clear-eyed walkthrough of day-to-day situations. I expect it will be widely adopted in library and information science courses.” – Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland, College Park, author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

“Acknowledging that we are part of ‘a long-standing and worldwide tradition of memory keepers,’ Trevor Owens challenges us to use the lessons learned in traditional preservation as we approach digital preservation. Distinguishing digital preservation as craft rather than science, Owens provides reassurance to all of us worried about finding the ‘silver bullet.’ It does not and should not exist!”- David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, National Archives and Records Administration

“A superb introduction to both the why and how of preserving digital cultural heritage. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation highlights history and theory, explains technology, and then moves on to practice, offering clear advice backed by examples. This is an ideal text for anyone interested in archives in the digital era.” – Steven Lubar, Brown University, author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present)

“Digital preservation, unlike the one-time process for preserving print, is an ongoing, changing responsibility for those who bear the responsibility of preserving our history and cultural heritage. Trevor Owens, a leader in the field, uses his experience and deep knowledge to show how the tools of the futurist can document the past. His axioms for digital preservation will guide novices and experts alike.” -Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R

“Owens blends the perspectives of archivist and media archaeologist to provide a richly satisfying appraisal―at once historical synthesis, practical guide, and philosophical overview―of what digital preservation can be. Its standout feature is a wise, practical approach for guiding even the smallest institutions in using technology for the ‘craft’ of preservation.” -Alan Liu, The University of California, Santa Barbara, author of The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information

“Owens’s book is a call to action. As he so eloquently points out, we are far past the time to begin putting actions behind our words when it comes to digital preservation. This book provides digital preservation practitioners with an up-to-date road map for thinking about, and more importantly, doing our work.” -Natalie M. Baur, Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas, El Colegio de México


“On the whole, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation excels as an example of how to effectively suggest that a nascent professional field correct its course without utterly shunning its brief past.” —Kyle Rimkus, American Archivist

“The fabled allure of the archives continues to tug powerfully at historians, yet too often the behind-the-scenes contributions that archivists make to this seduction get short shrift. Trevor Owens’s award-winning new book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, may change that…It will inspire many historians not only to approach their sources in productive new ways, but also to better appreciate the sophisticated contributions of those who tend the archives on which we depend. It is highly recommended.”—Glenn D. Tiffert, The American Historical Review

“The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation is a valuable primer for those who are interested in developing a better understanding of digital preservation and the key areas to cover when developing a digital preservation plan. Owens’ expertise on the topic and highly accessible writing style allow him to craft a volume of great value to those who are new to the area of digital preservation, or who are looking to develop an understanding of the key principles of digital preservation to be able to support others who are actively working in this area.—Lisa M. McFall, Metadata and Digital Initiative Librarian at Hamilton College, College and Research Libraries

“The usefulness of Owens’s examples and metaphors cannot be overstated. He harnesses the power of storytelling to make the content accessible to those with little background on the topic…Anyone looking for an approachable introduction to digital preservation, or a new perspective on persistent digital quandaries, will find something useful in this book.” —Carli Lowe, University Archivist, San José State University. Archival Issues.

“Owens succeeds wonderfully, writing an engaging introduction to a complex subject. His prose is easy to read, thoughtful, and filled with useful case studies that illustrate his broader arguments that will helpfully inform those working with cultural heritage material. By centering his book on practical considerations, Owens helpfully guides readers beyond digital anxiety that will both prevent the book from becoming outdated as well as give professionals and newcomers alike a grounding in practical and traditional ideas, approaches, and frameworks of preservation.” —Jason Heppler, Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Omaha, The Public Historian.

“a first-rate introduction to the complex and often messy subject of digital preservation and provides illuminating insights for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike.”—Evelyn Mclellan,  President, Artefactual Systems, Archivaria.

“This craft is one in which an organization or institution and its personnel hone and refine it within their local context, minimizing the most pressing risks, while realizing it is not an issue solely solved via technology and/or technological solutions. To that end, I intend to engage my institutional colleagues in a dialog, using this book as a common reading and discussion tool.”—Dan Noonan, RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 

“This book fills a gap. Finally, someone who has been entrusted with the evaluation, acquisition, and use of digital objects has summarized his tasks from a technical perspective in a well-thought-out text and backed up theory… [Owens] manages to guide the readers in an understandable and clear way through unfamiliar terrain. The book is therefore recommended to all beginners in this area, but also “old hands” will recognize many of their own experiences or maybe learn something else.”—Dr. Kai Naumann, Archivar

The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation is a thoughtful, well-written, and extremely readable book. Owens draws from many cultures and disciplines to illustrate and define how we have preserved and will continue to preserve digital information.”—Sharmila Bhatia Mid-Atlantic Archivist

“This book is not just for experts. Owens uses real-life examples to put the hard-to-truly-pin-down-topic into a more tangible form for even a lay person to grasp… Overall, the book does a good job defining digital preservation and covering a basic introduction to the world of digital preservation. Owens shows his love of digital preservation and conveys an in-depth knowledge that he is willing to share with the rest of the community.” —Katherine E. Jones, Library Resources and Technical Services

The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation achieves the difficult balance of being a text referenced for everyday work by practitioners, without prescribing or endorsing specific tools or processes that would quickly become outdated. This allows the text to be useful to librarians, archivists, and museum professionals, while also approaching the topic in a broad enough manner to be valuable for scholars, researchers, and other professionals engaging with digital preservation.” —Kayla Harris, Journal of Archival Organization

“Trevor Owens has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book… Owens provides important guidance on taking a step back to gain perspective on what one is trying to accomplish with the preservation of a digital object or collection. That is, to see preservation not merely as a technological process to be applied to all objects, but as a craft to be applied as appropriate in the context of particular digital collections and their archival purpose.”  —Larry Weimer, Head of Archival Processing, New York Historical Society, Metropolitan Archivist.

“Owens seeks to inspire digital archivists to think more deeply, creatively and unconfidingly about their craft — in doing so he has created a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in how to preserve our digital heritage.” —Adrian Brown, Director at The Parliamentary Archives, Archives and Records: The Journal of the Archives and Records Association