Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Digital preservation can be defined as the process and activities which stabilize and protect digital records and publications in forms which are retrievable, readable and usable over time. Digital preservation could also be defined as a set of processes and activities that ensure continued access to information and all kinds of records, scientific and cultural heritage existing in digital formats. This includes the preservation of materials resulting from digital reformatting but particularly information that is born-digital and has no analog counterpart. Digital preservation is an ongoing process of managing data for continued access and use.

The adoption of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) has revolutionized the conduct of business and has greatly enhanced information accessibility. In particular, organizations are not only able to store large amounts of information but can also have quick access to it. This has improved service delivery and has ensured that policy makers react rapidly to social and economic developments. Further, the general public can also access information in remote areas. ICT has enabled archivists, records managers and librarians to carry out their mandate: that of information capture, preservation and dissemination. While use of ICT has occasioned these many benefits it has also brought challenges that have to be addressed. Principally, this new development has led to the generation of information in digital form which has to be managed. In spite of the benefits accruable, the technology has presented tremendous challenges which information professionals should be concerned with.

The purpose of preservation is to ensure protection of information of enduring value for access by present and future generations (Conway, 1990: 206). Libraries and archives have served as the central institutional focus for preservation, and both types of institutions include preservation as one of their core functions. In recent decades, many major libraries and archives have established formal preservation programs for traditional materials which include regular allocation of resources for preservation, preventive measures to arrest deterioration of materials, remedial measures to restore the usability of selected materials, and the incorporation of preservation needs and requirements into overall program planning.
An African perspective on preservation ought not to be different from other perspectives. However, digital preservation is often discussed in terms of technology, infrastructure and practices. Africa is largely composed of developing nations and thus has peculiar problems.

In African institutions these factors are attributed to:

Information Policies

Most African countries have no policies on handling information be they in print; let alone in electronic format. In some African countries, years after independence they are still struggling with enacting a libraries act and as a result most institutions operate within a no policy framework. An enabling policy framework would allow institutions to implement various preservation strategies that are in line with their own parent institutions but operate within the overall country policy framework. These policy frameworks are essential especially if they can feed into broader continental policies such as the NEPAD initiative (The New Partnership for Africa’s Development which is a VISION and STRATEGIC Framework for Africa’s renewal). The NEPAD initiative itself is very silent on the preservation of Africa’s knowledge resources although it places prominence on the improvement of information and communication infrastructure (ICT). The improvement of ICT infrastructure will do well if there are policy frameworks at the country level that support the preservation and permanent storage of African knowledge resources wherever they might be found and in whatever format they might in.


Africa’s infrastructure is still lacking in handling large preservation of knowledge resources, especially resources that are in electronic form. Access to ICT facilities is a daily struggle for most institutions that are just barely managing to maintain access to print resources to be able to meet the daily requirement for academic learning in higher educational institutions.

Financial Constraints

Preservation of knowledge resources is a continuous process not just a one off issue. To implement an effective and efficient preservation policy, there is need for commitment at both the institutional and national levels that preservation of the knowledge resources will be an incremental process that will be carried on from one generation to another. This effort entails that financial resources be committed to such a venture over long periods of time. This trend in funding has affected all areas of library operations including money that could be allocated for preservation of scholarly information materials. Financial commitments would also be needed to purchase and preserve the digital knowledge resources to permanently make them accessible to users, now and in the future.

Financial resources available for libraries and archives continue to decrease and will likely do so for the near future. The argument for preserving digital information has not effectively made it into public policy. There is little enthusiasm for spending resources on preservation at the best of times and without a concerted effort to bring the issues into the public eye, the preservation of digital information will remain a cloistered issue. The importance of libraries has been diminished in the popular press as the pressures from industry encourage consumers to see libraries as anachronistic while the Internet and electronic products such as Microsoft Encarta are promoted as inevitable replacements. Until this situation changes, libraries and archives will continue to be asked to do more with less both in terms of providing traditional library services, as well as new digital library services: preservation will have to encompass both kinds of collections.

Technical Knowledge

Technical knowledge on the digital elements of electronic documents is largely lacking among staff that are in preservation departments. The presence of preservation departments in most of the libraries and information centers is really in name only as most of them concentrate on book and journal binding. This is coupled with the lack of preservation training. This lack of knowledge extends to deficient know-how on the equipment and software that is required for the preservation of digital information resources.

Digital Technology Challenges

Digital technology poses several challenges in the preservation of digital information resources. These are among others; technology comes in different formats, the cost of maintaining international standards of digital formats is expensive as it is often based on paying for upgrades to match the technology both the hardware and software. These come with subscriptions costs; so in essence a library/information center/archival center would have to subscribe to hardware; software and then to the electronic journal. This is unlike the paper format which has relatively changed very little since it was discovered as papyrus in Egypt 3000 BC. The electronic document is fairly new and has changed forms since then. If it is not the document changing from MS Word, PDF, html XML etc; it is the software requirement to be able to open and read the document. For example, if the document is in PDF you will need a PDF reader; JPEG would require a JPEG; just as a TIFF formatted document would require a Tiff reader. This means that institutions are always forced to change the facilities so they can meet various requirements such as software and hardware. Digital preservation presumes that there should be constant and continuous learning on the part of preservation staff both in software knowledge as well as hardware. This is because digital preservation methods are always changing depending on the nature of the hardware and software applied.

Legal Barriers

Digitization of information requires obtaining copyright permission from various publishers to be able to duplicate anything in large quantities. However, most licensing agreements for journals or books produced by major publishers prohibit duplication of electronic documents or local storage of the document. What is allowed when one has a subscription is usually the online access to the particular journal for instance, without the subscribing institution having permanent access to content of the journal. Once subscription ends, access to the electronic content of journal is not possible. It is unlike in the print subscription model where once one has subscribed to the journal, the institution will have permanent access to the journal because the journal will be physically present the libraries own space.

Media Deterioration
Recording media for digital materials are vulnerable to deterioration and catastrophic loss, and even under ideal conditions they are short lived relative to traditional format materials. Although librarians/archivists have been battling acid-based papers, thermo-fax, nitrate film, and other fragile media for decades, the threat posed by magnetic and optical media is qualitatively different. They are the first reusable media and they can deteriorate rapidly, making the time frame for decisions and actions to prevent loss is a matter of years, not decades. While acid paper is prone to deterioration, becoming brittle and yellowing with age, the deterioration may not become apparent for some decades and progresses slowly. It remains possible to retrieve information without loss once deterioration is noticed. Digital data recording media may deteriorate more rapidly and once the deterioration starts, in most cases there may already be data loss. This characteristic of digital forms leaves a very short time frame for preservation decisions and actions.
Technological Obsolescence

More insidious and challenging than media deterioration is the problem of obsolescence in retrieval and playback technologies. Information technologies are essentially obsolete every 18 months. Innovation in the computer hardware, storage, and software industries continues at a rapid pace, usually yielding greater storage and processing capacities at lower cost. Devices, processes, and software for recording and storing information are being replaced with new products and methods on a regular three- to five-year cycle, driven primarily by market forces. This dynamic creates an unstable and unpredictable environment for the continuance of hardware and software over a long period of time and represents a greater challenge than the deterioration of the physical medium. Many technologies and devices disappear as the companies that provide them move on to new product lines, often without backwards compatibility and ability to handle older technologies, or the companies themselves disappear. Records created in digital form in the first instance and those converted retrospectively from paper or microfilm to digital form is equally vulnerable to technological obsolescence.

Established Standards
Another challenge is the absence of established standards, protocols, and proven methods for preserving digital information. With few exceptions, digital library research has focused on architectures and systems for information organization and retrieval, presentation and visualization, and administration of intellectual property rights (Levy and Marshall). The critical role of digital libraries and archives in ensuring the future accessibility of information with enduring value has taken a back seat to enhancing access to current and actively used materials. As a consequence, digital preservation remains largely experimental and replete with the risks associated with untested methods; and digital preservation requirements have not been factored into the architecture, resource allocation, or planning for digital libraries.
Proliferation of document and media formats
There is a proliferation of document and media formats, each one potentially carrying their own hardware and software dependencies. Copying these formats from one storage device to another is simple. However, merely copying bits is not sufficient for preservation purposes: if the software for making sense of the bits (that is for retrieving, displaying, or printing) is not available, then the information will be, for all practical purposes, lost. Libraries will have to contend with this wide variety of digital formats. Many digital library collections will not have originated in digital form but come from materials that were digitized for particular purposes. Those digital resources which come to libraries from creators or other content providers will be wildly heterogeneous in their storage media, retrieval technologies and data formats. Libraries which seek out materials on the Internet will quickly discover the complexity of maintaining the integrity of links and dealing with dynamic documents that have multimedia contents, back-end script support, and embedded objects and programming.

Concerns of authenticity and reliability
The authenticity and reliability of electronic records are often questioned because of possible changes to content or structure. Authenticity can be defined as the ability of the records to be reliable over time and act as evidence of organizational transactions. Reliability on the other hand, refers to a record’s authority and trustworthiness, and this is tied to the ability of a record to stand for a fact it is about. A number of authors among them, Hoffman and MacNeil, have argued that there are no guarantees of authenticity and reliability in the electronic environment, as records can be deleted or changed at any time. It is, therefore, important that electronic records are managed to ensure that they remain authentic and reliable as evidence. Perhaps in the paper environment, one can say that this is more straightforward, as records are physical objects, and this makes identification of their characteristics easier than it is in the virtual world. The records provide evidence of actions, but the computer systems may fail to capture the necessary information about the context of the creation and the use of records.
Access to electronic records and concerns of privacy

The use of computers has enabled organizations to create databases that now handle huge amounts of data on-line, which is made accessible anywhere and anytime. This has raised concerns that if the information is not properly managed, it may be made available too easily, resulting in lack of protection for the citizen’s individual rights. Further, the vast amount of information maintained about individuals by both government and private organizations threatens their privacy. Ojedokum has highlighted some of the privacy infringement as unauthorized acquisition of data, unauthorized penetration into computer networks. Computers allow fast and inexpensive communication of information and the collection and storage of large amounts of data. At the same time, these capabilities allow individuals and organizations to access information.
Power cuts and backup strategies

Power cuts and irregular electricity supplies are a major barrier. In most African countries there are limited power distribution networks which do not even reach rural areas where the majority of the population lives. African cities with higher population that have been experiencing power cuts include but are not limited to Accra, Dares Salaam, Lagos, Gaborone, Nairobi, Harare etc. These power cuts have disrupted business operations. Increased dependence on computers and their services for data processing also means increased reliance on the power supplies that keep the systems operating. Power failure means that organizations may lose valuable information and time. It is estimated that 50-70% of businesses that lose their data due to power cuts never recover it, and some go out of business. There is a need, therefore, for systems that will maintain quality power supply and protect electronic systems.

Internet Bandwidth (Digital Divide)

The digital divide is still a major hindrance. In many parts of Africa there is little access to computers and the Internet. In those parts where there is Internet access, the resources, such as bandwidth, are severely limited or extremely expensive. Some digital preservation systems, such as LOCKSS, have questionable applicability. In the case of LOCKSS, a group of sites collaboratively maintain the integrity of collections. LOCKSS, however, does not cater for unstable and irregular bandwidth availability – its algorithms will not make the most efficient use of bandwidth and may exacerbate problems at sites with poor bandwidth. All online archives need to make use of bandwidth in a way that is both minimal and cognizant of the differences among sites.

Skills and Education

Librarians, archivists and information professionals in African institutions are arguably not as technically skilled as their counterparts in other parts of the world. The availability of computer systems in some parts of the continent has the effect that curators of information do not receive sufficient training in electronic systems. Digital media is not the norm for many forms of communication and information storage. The level of education of the general population in many African countries also is a problem. The number of literate individuals, as well as the number of individuals with access to a computer and the Internet is lower than elsewhere in the world. This creates a challenge for digital preservation both in terms of collection building, especially for end-user submissions, and dissemination. Novel solutions are needed for both these problems to make digital archives effective.


Digital collections facilitate access, but do not facilitate preservation. Being digital means being ephemeral. Digital places greater emphasis on the here-and-now rather than the long-term, just-in-time information rather than just-in-case. The research program for digital preservation has only recently been initiated to develop strategies, guidelines, and standards. The challenges to digital preservation are considerable and will require a concerted effort on the part of librarians and archivists to rise up to these challenges and assert in public forums the importance of protecting a fragile digital heritage.


1.     Douwe Drijfhout. 2006. Challenges in terms of Digital Preservation. LIASA Conference 2006.

2.     Christine W. Kanyengo. 2006. Managing Digital Information Resources in Africa: Preserving the Integrity of Scholarship

3.     Hussein Suleman. An African Perspective on Digital Preservation

4.     Margret Hedstrom. Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries

5.     Margret Hedstrom. Digital Preservation: Problems and Prospects

6.     Terry Kuny. 1997. A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information. 63rd IFLA Council and General Conference

Segomotso Masegonyana Keakopa. 2008. Trends in Long-Term Preservation of Digital Information: Challenges and Possible Solutions for Africa