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Technological Changes and Digital Preservation

By Genevieve Balivet

Digital preservation is  a part of writing that is often overlooked. Yet, as writers, we produce a lot of digital content. Understanding how to care so that what we create remains accessible and usable is today an essential element of what it means to be a writer. Our ability to preserve our files and data is contingent to the software and tools that we use. When a specific software or platform is being discontinued, preserving our data can become challenging.

What is Digital Preservation?

The Digital Preservation Coalition defines digital preservation as, “the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary.” It’s mainly used by companies and organizations, but individual people can also use digital preservation methods to save their photos, websites, videos, or art. It’s not the same as digitization, which is “creating digital content from non-digital mediums,” but it is similar to preserving physical items in museums or libraries. Just like physical items require proper care to last longer, digital files need a system for retention and upkeep. Without one, they are vulnerable to issues like software updates, which render old files obsolete, or bit rot, when individual bits of data “flip,” making the file inaccessible. Despite these risks, organizations and people often don’t have plans for retaining files or the resources to do so. Their data can be corrupted or lost, which is costly in more ways than one.

Case Study: Adobe Flash and the Internet Archive

In 1993, a program called SmartSketch was created, which would eventually become Adobe Flash. It was used to create interactive components in websites, like games, animation, audio, and video. Thanks to its easy-to-use software, it was commonly used in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, with the advent of HTML 5 and amid struggles with backwards compatibility, Flash started to lose support from both users and developers. At the end of 2020, it was permanently discontinued. As of February 2021, Flash was only being used on 2.2 percent of websites, and many of those were in the process of transferring content to current software. But the discontinuation also meant that a lot of content became suddenly unusable. Animations, games, even entire websites shut down when they lost their support software.

Luckily, some groups worked to preserve content before the shutdown. One of these groups was the Internet Archive, a non-profit that preserves and gives free access to music, films, books, and websites. When Adobe announced Flash’s shutdown, the Internet Archive used Ruffle, a Flash emulator, to preserve more than 1,000 animations and other items. While the emulator isn’t an exact replica of Flash, it still runs Flash files pretty smoothly. These works are from both small creators like Joe Sparks and corporations like Hallmark, showcasing the wide variety of applications and creativity that Flash provided. Thanks to this effort, future generations have access to the art, information, and culture of the early internet.

Since 2001, they also provide access to an archive of the World Wide Web through the Wayback Machine, giving us access to past versions of web pages or even sites that are not online anymore. This preservation work can benefit “researchers, historians, and scholars,” as well as the average curious user. As digital spaces evolve, the Internet Archive both protects content from being lost and ensures that it can be continually accessible to the world.

Why Does This Matter?

Digital preservation is a large issue, with ongoing conversations about what to preserve and best practices for doing so. In today’s digital world, it has become a crucial element for running an organization. Not adequately caring for important documents can cause serious financial loss. Beyond that, though, digital preservation is important for all of us. It keeps companies and groups accountable, preserves knowledge for people to build on, and saves important cultural touchstones such as art and music. It creates a museum of past information and ideas to which we can refer as we move forward.

We are all involved in digital preservation, but it’s especially important for professional writers and designers. We often make content that needs preserving, such as business documents, research papers, or design files. Digital preservation strategies can help us manage our own files productively. For example, we can save our work in formats that are widely accessible using multiple digital tools. Through this, we can save ourselves, and organizations that we may work for, from losing important data. And, on a larger scale, we contribute our work to the world’s ever-growing digital museum.

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