Bit Rot: Digitisation vs Digital Preservation

This is a topic I find incredibly interesting, as well as something quite urgent to consider and deal with.

“I am really worried right now about the possibility of saving ‘bits’ but losing their meaning and ending up with bit-rot. This means you have a bag of bits that you saved for a thousand years but you don’t know what they mean, because the software that was needed to interpret them is no longer available, or it’s no longer executable, or you just don’t have a platform that will run it. This is a serious, serious problem and we have to solve that.” Vint Cerf – Chief Evangelist, Google

This is a real issue that sometimes gets overlooked, or wilfully ignored. Yes, we may be able to save ‘bits’ but without context the meaning is lost. This also links back to the discussion in the 2015 Whyte Memorial Lecture (see previous blog post) on how librarians need to ‘think like archivists’ when digitising materials, to ensure their long term preservation, as well as how important context is!

As the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) ‘Insights from the Trend Report‘ acknowledges:

Preserving our digital heritage is a priority for libraries and archives around the world. Identifying and capturing digital content of historical or cultural significance in the information deluge is one challenge for libraries. Copyright restrictions on digital content, format obsolescence and lack of technological capacity are others. Automated technologies like web harvesting and search algorithms are increasingly being used by libraries to identify and record our digital output – what have we lost in turning curation and preservation over to algorithms?

It is important to recognise that digitisation is not digital preservation! The Library of Congress has a great short blog post about this issue.

“Scanning is a process fixed in time.  You scan something once and if you do it correctly you are done and can move on to the next project.  Digital preservation is different, because it involves active management over time.  If you scan and then forget about the digital file, it may not be usable to future users.”

For me, this topic brings to mind the parable (or real story?) of the perpetual painting of a bridge. (It could possibly have been the Golden Gate Bridge, which in and of itself presents a really interesting story on how it is painted…) The basic premise being that as soon as the painters complete their job, they must begin at the start painting again. It takes so long to complete the task then when it is finished, they need to begin again as the paint at the start is already degrading…

I feel like this is analogous with what we face as information professionals, as soon as we finish digitising everything in one type of format, the technology upgrades and we need to start all over at the beginning again! MS-DOS, Floppy discs, to CDS, to USBs and hard-drives to the cloud, old unreadable file formats are a prevalent issue. Speaking with colleagues from other countries, I have found a common struggle in this area, not to mention the less developed countries constantly trying to play catchup with their limited resources. How can GLAMR institutions around the world deal with this problem? I’m not entirely sure…

Funnily enough, it seems to me the best way to combat bit rot (and avoid the time and costs involved in constant updating from one format to the next) may be to use the old reliable forms of recording information. The Rosetta Stone, inscribed in 196 BC, is still usable today, parchment/paper monographs from centuries ago have been successfully preserved for future use… Clearly we can’t write everything in stone, but its interesting that these ‘outdated’ forms of communication are the longest lasting. Did you know a CD’s shelf life can be as little as 2 years?!

What do you think about this issue and how to deal with it?

There’s lots of great additional information/discussion to read if you want to learn more.

Signing off,

Michelle De Aizpurua

February 2016 update: researchers have created a tiny 5-dimensional glass disc that can store 360TB for nearly 14 billion years!! Perhaps this is the answer to our woes.


EXTRA NOTE: If you are interested in learning more and work in a public library, there is a great FREE opportunity coming up!

PLVN and the State Library are pleased to Digital Preservation information sessions free to public library staff across Victoria. These sessions are about long-term preservation of digital content in public libraries – the things you need to consider, the plans you need to make, the actions you need to take to ensure that the digital content in your collections remains accessible in the future and as formats change.  They address an area that has been identified as critical, but where awareness amongst public library staff is generally low.  Please note that the first and largest session will be at the State Library on 27 October, so it would be advisable to book promptly (see details below).

The sessions have been developed and will be delivered by Victorian public library staff who participated in a Library of Congress Digital Preservation Outreach train-the-trainer course in June this year.  The sessions run for a day and contain six modules providing information such as identifying and selecting digital items to be preserved and the long-term storage, access and management of digital items.

 Target audience:  

These sessions are appropriate for staff involved in, or responsible for:

  • Collections, cataloguing and archiving
  • Local and family history
  • Digital content, systems and IT
  • Strategic development
  • Anyone who is interested in digital preservation.

You don’t need prior knowledge of digital preservation to attend.

Libraries are encouraged to send more than one staff member to learn about this critical issue.

 Session times and locations:

10am – 4pm at:

State Library Victoria: 27 October 2015

Bendigo Library: 17 November 2015

Benalla Library: 16 February 2016

Pakenham Library: 9 March 2016

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre: 27 April 2016 (this session will include a tour of the stunning new building)


Lunch is provided. Please include dietary requirements with your booking.


Please email Susan McLaine to book into a session. Bookings close on 20 October for the session at State Library Victoria on 27 October 2015.  Reminders will be sent for subsequent sessions, although you can book for other sessions now.

The Digital Preservation information sessions are part of the MEMORY Program in the 2014 – 2017 Statewide Public Library Development Projects, a major collaboration of Public Libraries Victoria Network and the State Library to deliver better library services to all Victorians.


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