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Electronic documents preservation

Ana CanteliWritten by Ana Canteli on 17 August 2018

The task of preserving digital repositories aims to identify and promote digital preservation and provide access to the digital information they contain. The applications of the longterm preservation of documents are multiple; from the protection of rights to the viability of the accountability, through the promotion of the participation of the actors affected by, or linked to, longterm preservation of digital information strategies or preservation practice.

Thanks to the intensive use of information resources, information science, information technologies and digital repositories, there are increasingly more native digital contents and more digital technologies, which must be used to fulfil the obligation to preserve libraries and information while guaranteeing the following attributes: authenticity, reliability, readability, and functionalities. The technical evolution of digital preservation has made that our ability to records management exponentially increased over time, while the longevity of digital material used for the preservation of documents has decreased at the same speed.

The first large-scale challenge in long-term preservation arises due to the high degree of degradation of traditional materials such as paper made of wood, detected in the mid-nineteenth century. This problem, called "slow fire" - because its destructive effect was as lethal as fires, although slower - was made known in the mid-twentieth century. Previously, the preservation of physical documents was equivalent to the preservation of the information they contained, which guaranteed their long-term usability of libraries and information. However, in the digital object, preserving the support is a necessary condition to maintain the conditions of use, but not enough for the preservation of digital information. In addition, other variables must be considered:

  • The reliability and integrity of the information: since the record preservation of information in digital formats is not done in a fixed preservation format or proprietary formats and the data can be easily reproduced, altered or deleted, which would result in an unfavourable risk assessment of the preservation program.
  • The obsolescence of digital media: that determines the need to maintain the original physical media or renew it at a certain frequency.
  • The need for users to know how to use successive technologies and preservation and access management systems (usability).

This, which occurs with much of the content that is created in the world, must be preserved by preservation strategies due to the interest they represent at the legal, historical, scientific or cultural level. The result of the activities of public (institutional archives, Library of Congress in Washington dc, British library - national archives) or private organizations (digital curation, cultural institution) are included and must be prepared for the longterm preservation for the knowledge and use for future generations. Proper preservation will result in trusted digital repository information systems.

The regulatory framework of digital preservation for records management must have a broad scope, that is to say; cover the complete lifecycle of the documents and be applicable throughout the organization. It must also apply to all daily activities; therefore, the procedures must be documented in a clear and concise manner to be put into practice. Moreover, it must be endorsed by the management, which shows its commitment to the goal of preservation plans.

The resources of all organizations are limited, so it will be necessary to establish a strategy for preserving and ensuring long-term digital repositories accessibility, taking into account the needs and resources, the interests of users and different aspects: physical and intellectual, such as file format- format for preservation, format obsolescence -, status, use ... The records management preservation activity, based on the regulations of the organization - which in turn must be inspired by higher standards at sectoral, regional, national or even international level, must answer the following questions:

  • What resources are going to be preserved?
  • When does the treatment of selected resources begin?
  • What are the problems of the preservation of digital documents?
  • What methods are going to be used for the preservation of digital documents?

What resources are going to be preserved?

From an organizational point of view, electronic records have three fundamental functions:

  • Operative: the electronic records are the basis of the usual operations of the organization. In this phase, the use of technologies is intensive to allow more efficient and effective development of work. However, the special conditions of digital information are rarely taken into account in this phase.
  • Organizational responsibility: the organizations demonstrate their adherence to the normative and legislative framework through electronic records and authentic and complete digital information, which are stored in software that guarantees the safe preservation of digital libraries and subsequent long-term accessibility.
  • Historical archive: documents that have been considered valuable or important enough to be conserved in the long term, document the corporate history of the organization and must be maintained as digitized collection and migrated between technological platforms that ensure its integrity and context.

When does the treatment of selected resources begin?

When the documents cease to be useful for the development of daily activities, one can think of the suitability of the preservation management within the overall information management framework of the entity.

What problems does the preservation of digital documents have?

The problems derived from the characteristics of the electronic document (file format), the dependence of the hardware and software (file format and operating system) and ensuring longterm record preservation (access, see and use the digital record). Technological obsolescence, due to the expiration of devices and programs necessary to access and use electronic documents (conditioned in turn by its version, file format, and technology) means that if this situation is not solved in time; the electronic files become "orphan documents." The file itself has not been damaged, but the information is no longer accessible as the technology that originated it has fallen into disuse.

On the other hand, the degradation of media is another threat to the preservation of digital files; because of its fragility. There are internal factors, related to the materials that compose them, on which data is recorded through magnetic or optical processes. However, external factors such as temperature and humidity also directly affect the preservation process. From the point of view of preservation digital management, conservation strategies should focus on the design, use and conservation phases of documents.

Plan for the conservation of electronic documents

Organizations often rely on the use of document management systems and electronic records to undertake these phases. The software for managing documents and electronic records supports the management of electronic information in 2 different but complementary ways:

  • Management of electronic documents: helps organizations use their information more efficiently, contributing with better control of the creation, storage, review, and distribution of documents among users (also emails) complying with the privacy policy. The same happens with the control of file flow
  • Record management: helps the organization in the effective management of documents, especially regarding the creation, reception, maintenance, use, and disposal of information in the form of records that show the activities and operations of the organization.

The OpenKM electronic documents and records management system presents the ideal platform for the satisfaction of these objectives. It also presents a series of intrinsic advantages:

  • It is integrative: thanks to its Java, PHP, and .NET SDKs it can integrate with third applications already present in the organization; facilitates interoperability with other systems and contributes to creating a knowledge management system. It can be used as a file of emails.
  • It is scalable: both the OpenKM Cloud version and the OpenKM Professional version are adaptable to the size of the repository and the number of users.
  • It is sustainable: OpenKM open source technology contributes to the content, context, and structure of the documents being maintained over time

As we have said before, the organization or professionals of archival or documentary management, who wish to seek the preservation of the digital heritage of the organization, should carry out a document management strategy, organized in the following phases or stages.

First stage: Design

It is about defining the design of the electronic documents and the processes in which they participate, in accordance with the privacy policy, to guarantee the reliability, authenticity, availability, integrity and description and selection of the files.

  • Reliability: the information present in the file is a complete and accurate representation of the operations, activities, and facts of which it attests.
  • Authenticity: in the electronic document, the original characteristics of the document concerning context, structure, and content persist over time.
  • Availability: understood as the ability to locate, retrieve, present and interpret a document.
  • Integrity: a document is complete when it is complete in all its aspects (structure and content).
  • Description: it is about defining the content of the document, the process in which it participates, and the context in which it has been registered.
  • Selection: the evaluation and evaluation of the documentary series should also be incorporated in the design phase to include the selection of digital documents for their conservation.

Second stage: Utilization

Once it has been proven that the documents are reliable, authentic, complete and available, it is essential that they retain these attributes over time. User authentication is a formula that allows only selected users to access the document. In OpenKM, only users with login and password can access the document manager. At the same time, the assignment of roles and profiles will adapt the work environment to the needs of the user. Finally, from the security tab linked to any content within the system, (folder, document, email - including attachments - or records) you can define the list of privileges that the user has (read, write, download and others)

On the other hand, the access and use of documents imply other complementary requirements:

  • Interconnection: Connecting some files with others in the right place and order according to the procedure, to follow their evolution and keep the digital document intact in all its phases. In this aspect, OpenKM offers Automation functionality, which allows the organization to define the process according to the requirements of the same. In this way, human errors, deviations in compliance with regulations and possible loss of productivity are avoided. On the other hand, the OpenKM workflow engine makes it possible to define workflows that streamline the management of business processes. The Activity Log section allows a complete audit of the document and the History tab provides access to the life cycle of the document, together with all its versions and even highlighting the differences in content between them.
  • Interrelation: The Relationships tab makes it possible to see the links that the file in electronic format has with other documents and what type of relationship binds them (bidirectional, parent-child, group).
  • Transfer: the documents can be kept in the document manager, but if for reasons of space or other considerations the organization prefers the transfer of the files to another storage environment, the OpenKM document manager can serve to satisfy this phase of the cycle vital of the document.

Third stage: conservation

The documents in physical format, retain their authenticity if they are kept in the same form, status and transmission status in which they have been created, received or saved. However, for electronic documents to retain their authenticity, they must continually renew the format and migrate periodically.

Renewal means the creation of a complete reproduction of both the content and the formal elements of a document. In this way, the new electronic document is considered an exact copy of the original. The mime type management system of OpenKM allows the use of documents without the extension or version of the files being a limitation. To each new format or version, the administrator of the platform can add the new mime type, as they arise. Thus, users will be able to access and use the files over time.

Migration consists in the periodic transfer between different versions of technology that allows the preservation of information, but without guaranteeing that the new document is an exact replica of the original, because this technique focuses on the reproduction of the content of the document, but for that purpose changes the configuration and the format.

Conservation is the step that certifies through control procedures that documents that are no longer necessary for daily management are stored correctly (information centers are a possibility) and that the results of the renewal or migration are optimal.

The digital preservation of electronic documents is a fundamental activity for all types of organizations, both public and private, which allows them to comply with obligations and interests both internally and at a public or legal level. It also offers numerous advantages, such as space saving, risk management - being able to save copies in safe physical environments or away from the production environment - while guaranteeing the authenticity, reliability, integrity, and accessibility of information in the long term.

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