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Archival Description Applied to Digital Formats and Digital Preservation: Maintaining Metadata throughout the Digital Preservation Process Alexandra A. A. Orchard, Graduate Student, Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science. Abstract

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Archival Description Applied to Digital Formats and Digital Preservation:

Maintaining Metadata throughout the Digital Preservation Process

Alexandra A. A. Orchard, Graduate Student, Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science


  • Technology has modified both archival description and the archival materials it describes. Metadata is now a key component of archival description, making finding aids and the archival material described more accessible and findable. Archival material is rapidly becoming composed of electronic records, some born digital, others digitized for preservation and access reasons. However, a standard digital preservation method does not yet exist, leaving archivists to choose between techniques including refreshing, migration, and emulation. Thus, technology has had a great effect upon archival theory, changing archivy’s current paradigm as now digital archival materials must be preserved as well as the metadata (archival description) describing the archival digital object. While traditional archival theoretical tenets such as original order and provenance must still be met, new concerns emerge revolving around ensuring the authenticity and reliability of digitally preserved materials and their metadata, resulting in new potential theoretical models such as digital curation and digital historiography. Digital preservation concerns such as a standard digital preservation technique and retaining the original archival material must be addressed. Metadata issues including metadata schema, descriptive and amount standards, semantic concerns, and maintaining metadata as a separate digital object must be resolved. These challenges as well as potential solutions are presented.

Authenticity and Reliability

  • Authenticity: A record must be “what it purports to be and has not
  • been tampered with or otherwise corrupted since its creation (i.e.,
  • the trustworthiness of the record as a record)” (Duranti, 2001, p. 44)
  • Reliability: Refers to “the ability of a record to stand for the facts it is
  • about (i.e., the trustworthiness of the record as to content)” (p. 44).

Metadata’s Semantic Challenge

  • Not adequately preserving the semantic integrity of digital objects. Dubin, Futrelle, Plutchak, and Eke (2009) posit that much of this comes from metadata automation done to accommodate the influx of digital information (p. 597-598):
    • Descriptive: Vague, description level is indistinguishable and confusing
    • Encoding: Ambiguous syntax (“competing semantic relationships”), information improperly structured (“unstructured data”), unavailable for machine processing.
    • Schema Design: Ambiguities arise when schema’s “basic ontological assumptions” and specific metadata values are not in sync. compound given the need for interoperability between metadata schemas and repositories.
  • There is “a much more abstract concept of what constitutes the “original form” of a digital object,” thus “we are open to the idea
  • that a digital object can be “moved” from one carrier to another without changing or losing any aspect of its original form, even if this is technically not the case” (Pozo, Long, and Pearson, 2010, p. 292).
  • Digital surrogates of traditional /analog objects exacerbate authenticity and reliability issues because the physical archival item being preserved is not the original or a true equivalent.


Metadata as Archival Preservation

  • Archivy’s theoretical needs must be met:
  • Traditional: Provenance and original order
  • “Archival principles are transformed through technology” (Sternfeld, 2011, p. 574), the electronic record paradigm shift’s effects on reliability and authenticity.
  • The “reassessment of the archivist’s relationship to the formation and preservation of the documentary past” (Sternfeld, 2011 ,p. 573), caused by this paradigm shift, requires expansion and further development of digital preservation theory:
    • Digital Curation: “A set of interdisciplinary activities that address the growing critical need to more effectively create, manage, use, and add value to digital assets over time” (Kunda and Anderson –Wilk, 2011, p. 895). Components:
      • Digital preservation: Retain the digital materials.
      • Community involvement: Ensures that there is a digital preservation plan for “user-generated digital content” and “facilitate[s] user understanding of and engagement with the digital resources” to prevent “‘digital mortuaries’ of unused materials” (p. 896).
      • Digital Historiography: “the interdisciplinary study of the interaction of digital technology with historical practice”(Sternfeld, 2011, p. 550). Components:
      • Community-driven, interdisciplinary
      • Focus on enhanced search interfaces and capabilities as well as metadata
      • Continue working with technologies to standardize a digital preservation technique, (possibly migration or emulation). Determining a standard will:
        • Discussion and working through the problems facing digital preservation
        • Use of a single standard ensures consistency, accessibility, and interoperability.
  • Unlike traditional items, “electronic records are kept authentic by continuous refreshing and periodic migration” (Duranti, 2001, p. 46).
  • Maintaining authenticity and reliability of digital archival material is often accomplished through technological means, such as metadata.

Digital Preservation Challenges

  • The core archival concepts of original order and provenance provide challenges:
    • Digital objects do not easily have an original order
    • Digital objects are more easily modifiable than traditional formats
    • Digital objects do not have a corresponding physical object
    • Physical preservation of the storage medium/archival object
    • Physical preservation of any equipment needed to view the archival object
    • Require continuous evolution of equipment that reads/views the archival object (i.e., hardware and software). These changes can lead to obsolescence.

Metadata as Archival Description

  • Metadata is “structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use or manage an information resource” (NISO Press, 2004, p. 1).
  • Enhances traditional formats of archival description, specifically the finding aid,
  • by providing better findability,searchability, and thus accessibility to users.
  • Types of metadata as defined by NISO Press (2004, p. 1):
    • Administrative: “Provides information to help manage a resource”
    • Structural: “Indicates how compound objects are put together”
    • Descriptive: “Describes a resource for purposes such as discovery and identification”
    • Preservation: As defined by the Paradigm Project, 2005-2007a (Groenewald
    • and Breytenbach, 2011, p. 241), provides metadata within five categories to ensure the digital object is indeed authentic, reliable, and trustworthy:
    • Data and archival information for preservation software applications
    • Ongoing preservation and migration including reference: data identifiers
    • Provenance: history of the data and its ownership
    • Context: “relationship of the content to its environment”
    • Fixity Information: documents data authenticity
  • Standards enabled by metadata provide as defined by Prom (2003, p. 201):
    • “A data structure standard for cataloging archives”
    • “A content standard for constructing such catalog records”
    • “A data structure for encoding finding aids, including subordinate components”
    • Together with cross-walks, these enable interoperability.

Digital Preservation Methods

  • Defined by Evens and Hauttekeete (2011) “as a set of management processes and activities that ensures permanent access to digital information, including scientific and cultural heritages” (p. 158).
  • Unlike the preservation of traditional archival materials, it is not yet standardized.
  • Several utilized methods of digital preservation:
      • “Migration has been the only serious candidate thus far for preservation of large scale archive” (Granger, 2000, Rothenberg’s Views, para. 8) and results in modification to the archival material. Thus, digital preservation generates concerns such as integrity and authenticity of the archival material.


Dubin, D., Futrelle, J., Plutchak, J., & Eke, J. (2009). Preserving meaning, not just objects: Semantics and digital preservation. Library Trends, 57(3), 595-610.

Duranti, L. (2001). The impact of digital technology an archival science. Archives & Museum Informatics, 1(1), 39-55.

Evens, T., & Hauttekeete, L. (2011). Challenges of digital preservation for cultural heritage institutions. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 43(3), 157-165.

Granger, S. (2010). Emulation as a digital preservation strategy. D-Lib Magazine, 6(10). Retrieved from

Groenewald, R., & Breytenbach, A. (2011). The use of metadata and preservation methods for continuous access to digital data. The Electronic Library, 29(2), 236-248.

Kunda, S., & Anderson-Wilk, M. (2011). Community stories and institutional stewardship: Digital curation’s dual roles of story creation and resource preservation. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11(4), 895-914.

NISO Press, National Information Standards Organization. (2004). Understanding Metadata. Bethesda, MD: NISO Press.

Park. J-R., & Tosaka Y. (2010). Metadata creation practices in digital repositories and collections: Schemata, selection criteria, and interoperability. Information Technology and Libraries, 29(3), 104-116.

Pozo, N. D., Long, A. S., & Pearson, D. (2010). “Land of the lost”: A discussion of what can be preserved through digital preservation. Library Hi Tech, 28(2), 290-300.

Prom, C. J. (2003). Reengineering archival access through the OAI protocols. Library Hi Tech, 21(2), 199-209.

Sternfeld, J. (2011). Archival theory and digital historiography: Selection, search, and metadata as archival processes for assessing historical contextualization. The American Archivist, 74(2), 544-575.





Metadata’s Challenges

  • Disagreement as to whether metadata is archival description.
    • Inconsistent metadata description (schema and descriptive data) (Prom, 2003).
    • Use of different metadata standards (schema and descriptive data)
    • Lack of standards for amount and usage, with “the use of myriad metadata formats […] applied in different ways to suit local needs” (Prom, 2003, p. 201).
  • Migration to a new standard or format may cause data loss or integrity disparities:
    • Metadata is a digital object, separate from the archival material it describes, thus the metadata’s integrity and content must be preserved like the archival material.
    • As a separate entity, the mechanism or software program for a user to view the metadata (both raw and formatted metadata) must remain viable.