Beacon Street Diary blog

Practical Digital Preservation for your Church

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Work on the CLA’s pamphlet for starting a church records program continues apace, though slowly. One of the topics that will be covered in that pamphlet will be role of digital records in a records program and how to preserve those records. Digital preservation is a tough topic to crack though, especially when so much of the discussion surrounding digital preservation is either impractical, mired in hyper-specific terminology, or both. The diagram pictured here is of the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) model. I am not going to go into it (I’ve largely pictured it because there is a running joke in the field that all discussions of digital preservation must ultimately picture this model) but I do show it as a segue into saying that even large, well-funded, institutions with mature digital programs struggle to adhere fully to the OAIS model.

What then is the point in talking about digital preservation if even the biggest places run into difficulties? While it is true that digital preservation, at the highest level, is difficult, it does not mean that digital preservation at any level is impractical. Too often I have seen an emphasis in the field on “perfect preservation.” This need for some perfect solution tends to eat up resources, such as money and time, that could have been better spent on something smaller that provides imperfect, but achievable, digital preservation. And that kind of practical digital preservation is what the CLA hopes to offer churches.

For starters, let us clear up one very common misconception related to digital preservation. Paper is still the most secure, stable, and cost-effective preservation medium in the archives. Digital files are prone to corruption and bit-loss, stored on carrier mediums which regularly fail (such as compact disks, flash drives, and hard drives), and digital storage is expensive, especially at scale. Therefore, the CLA never suggests for churches to actively digitize their own physical records for preservation. As a field, digitization has moved away from “digitization for preservation” towards “digitization for access.” In other words, when archivists digitize something nowadays, it is typically done to mediate access to the resource, for example, by making digital images of a physical object available online for everyone with an internet connection to see. For a basic records program at a church, digitization will often make more headaches than solve problems.

While the CLA does not ever suggest churches digitize their own paper-based records, we also do not suggest mass-printing digital materials onto paper. While it is true that paper is a great preservation medium, it conversely does not make sense to be printing out every email and PDF for the sake of preservation. It may make sense to have physical surrogates for particularly important digital files, such as any digital documents related to church governance, but for the vast majority of digital records, having a physical version can lead to confusion and takes up space, a commodity often in short supply.

So how can churches preserve their digital records? There are a few practical and easy to implement decisions that can make digital preservation easier. From a policy perspective the first step is to have a committee. The CLA always recommends that a church records program be operated by a committee and either the full committee can participate in digital preservation or it can be handled by a sub-committee. At their best, committees ensure that institutional knowledge is not lost, even if its members change over time, and that contiguous knowledge is the absolute most important thing for a successful records program.

The committee should first determine and document the genres of digital records the church regularly creates, the file types of those digital records, where those records are stored, and who creates them. For example, it is important to identify that the church admin regularly creates minutes for the weekly church administration committee and that these records are made using Microsoft Word and stored on a local file directory on the church admin’s office computer. Think of this as an audit. This does not need to be a full accounting of every single digital files created, but it should cover, in broad swaths, records which are created regularly.

Once there is a sufficient accounting of the types and forms of digital records being created, the next step is to determine the lifecycle of these records. As a committee, decide which genres of digital records do not need to be preserved and therefore shouldn’t be transferred to a digital archive, which must be maintained for a time for legal reasons but should be destroyed after a certain time, and which should be considered important for the archival records and transferred to permanent storage after a time. If these kinds of determinations sound similar, it is because it is the same set of suggestions given to records programs for physical records. As such, the National Council of Nonprofits “Document Retention Policies for Nonprofits” can become a solid foundation upon which to think about managing digital records.

On to the task of preserving digital records, one of the first tasks after the initial audit should be to create a physical digital archive that exists separate from your church’s existing digital architecture. The greatest danger to digital files is hardware failure, such as the hard drive of an office computer failing. By purchasing an external hard drive, one can create an archived file repository that is separate from the standard office environment. To make the external hard drive even more secure, consider purchasing a watertight lockbox, depositing it into a safety deposit box at your church’s bank, or keeping it within a fire-safe vault in the church if you already have one. If funds are available, consider having two external hard drives, each an exact duplicate of the other, and storing them in different locations, such as one in the safe and the other at the bank. The initial ingest of files onto the external hard drive, using the audit as a base, will be the most time consuming task; once that is complete the church records committee should meet regularly, probably between 2-4 times a year, to determine which newly created files should be added to the hard drive and ensure that the device still functions. Unfortunately, even external hard drives can fail, so plan to acquire a new external hard drive every five years or so to be safe (though lightly used hard drives should last at least 10 years before any real danger of failure).

Another policy initiative that a church can undertake is to regularly convert old permanent files which are unlikely to be edited or modified in the future. While Microsoft’s Office suit is ubiquitous, it, and other similar office programs, are proprietary and the files they create are not guaranteed to be accessible in the future. Fortunately, most office programs allow you to save a file as a pdf, which is an acceptable and standard archival format for digital preservation. This conversion can be done before files are transferred to the external hard drive but should at minimum be done annually to help prevent backlogs and minimize the risk of any files suddenly becoming unsupported due to new software versions.

One final bit of advice would be to figure out a way to collect digital content from church members. Church events are the lifeblood of church communities, and they bring with them a plethora of records, many of them digital nowadays. The greatest bulk of these records might be videos and images taken on cell phones, but even the files created in preparation of the event, such as fliers, pamphlets, and programs, are likewise important records. Collections of these kinds of records can be done passively by setting up an email or a cloud-based Dropbox account specifically designed for collecting community records. With a particularly active community and records committee, churches could even organize events where community members volunteer their time and knowledge to tag digital photographs with the names of the people pictured in them. In general, outreach to the entire church community should be an important and regular part of the records committee’s work.

A lot has been covered in this post, and perhaps much of it not in the depth the topic requires, but I hope it can at least be a starting point to thinking about digital preservation. Digital records are here to stay and must be thought of as equal in importance to physical records. Ensuring their preservation is incredibly important to the future of a church’s community as they hold the memories of the present day. This is even more true now with COVID where many church activities have, like in much of society, become remote and digital. If ever there was a time to begin thinking about how your church can best manage and maintain its digital records, now is that time. And of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us via email!
Speaking of email! One absolute final bit of advice: do not worry about preserving emails. As much as it is talked about in the field, email preservation is neither practicable nor useful for basically any non-government entity.