Unstable materials. Part 5: Thoughts on digital preservation.

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at memory, oral history, archives and digital preservation, and using “unstable materials” as a theme. Part 1 dealt with the relationship between memory and oral history, Part 2 was about individual, collective and cultural memory, Part 3 focused on memory and oral history archives and Part 4 discussed the power of archives, oral history archives, and the development of counter-hegemonic archives.

Oral history is sometimes seen as a way to archive our world in the face of changing technologies. One impetus behind the growth of modern oral history, particularly in the US, was a response to a period of technological change, where the traditional material of the historical archive (such as the diaries, letters and memoires of women and men involved in public affairs) appeared to be no longer in use because of the widespread adoption of the telephone. To counteract this trend, in the late 1960s the founders of the Oral History Association argued that carefully conducted oral history interviews could provide an alternative source of information for the historians of the future (Grele 2007, 34 – 35).

Today this is equally relevant, as oral histories are seen as a way of counterbalancing the loss of traditional forms of information (housed in archives, personal and institutional):

 “…the eliciting of oral histories based on personal memory is integral to our understanding and will perhaps become more so as the rise of electronic communication media – email, digital documents, text-messaging and mobile telephones – supersede the traditional written record”. (Abrams 2010, 82).

Technology, therefore, appear to be primarily seen as a way in which records are lost (or no longer maintained) rather than a place for preservation. The fragility of the digital record, the constant revision of technologies rendering older digital formats obsolete (and the consequent requirement to convert/migrate old file formats into new) are on-going concerns. Digital, like memory, can be an unstable material.

Brown (2013, 9–12) provides an over-view of the development of ideas about digital preservation, from initial crystallisation of concerns about the long-term viability of digital information (c. 1994) to the picture today, when there is a growing number of trusted digital repositories, and when organisations devoted to digital preservation are beginning to emerge, focusing on training and development of standards and tools. And one of the ways of making a case for ongoing sustainability of a digital resource is to monitor how it is used, with the aim of justifying its value to users and to host institutions (Marchionni 2009).


Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brown, A. (2013). Practical Digital Preservation: A How-to Guide for Organizations of Any Size. Facet Publishing.

Grele, R. J. (2007). Oral history as evidence. In T. L. Charlton, L. E. Myers, & R. Sharpless (Eds.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 33 – 91). Plymouth: AltaMira Press.

Marchionni, P. (2009). Why Are Users So Useful? User engagement and the experience of the JISC Digitisation Programme. Ariadne, (61). Retrieved from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue61/marchionni/