Digital preservation at the crossroads

By Faye Lemay

Did you know that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has not only photos, books, paintings and manuscripts, but we also have a collection of digital material? Since we are the stewards of Canada’s documentary heritage, we need to make digital and analogue content available and usable.

Imagine creating a WordPerfect file in 1996, saving it to a floppy disk and then trying to open it today. Three things could occur: 1) you might not have a floppy drive, 2) the floppy disk might not work anymore, or 3) you might not have the software to open the WordPerfect file. Now imagine this on a scale that includes thousands of different types of files created by federal government workers, private Canadian citizens, publishers, etc., and stored on many different kinds of systems, diskettes and computers.

A colour photograph of an envelope containing different types of floppy disks.

Floppy disks in the Published Heritage collection.

Digital collections are inherently vulnerable to degradation and decay at a speed much faster than paper. To ensure the material lasts hundreds of years, digital preservation specialists must monitor and take action to prevent digital loss. These specialists monitor what types of file formats people are using (e.g., PDF, WPD), plan for changes in technology and create multiple copies, which are stored in climate-controlled vaults. We also make sure that the content of the files has not changed over time. Given how fast technology changes, we are always thinking ahead to prevent losing these treasured collections.

A colour photograph of a cabinet drawer containing hundreds of CD cases.

A small sample of the music CD collection, encompassing over 70,000 titles.

For LAC, our digital crossroads is now. We are in an era where digital collections are surpassing analogue collections in size. A recent inventory of our digital material revealed a vast and varied collection, both online and in physical media such as floppy disks, CDs and DVDs. This inventory also revealed that the volume of digital copies of university theses held at LAC is approaching that of analogue copies—and we only began acquiring theses in PDF digital formats in 1998. Since 2014, LAC has been acquiring theses in digital formats only. Official federal publications are also now primarily in digital format, since the government publishing regulations switched in 2013 to allowing online formats only. In addition, for the first time in its history, LAC received a private donation with 90 per cent of the collection in digital file format.

The LAC Digital Archive in the Preservation Centre serves as the central repository for LAC’s digital collections. Currently we preserve over five (5) petabytes of digital material, comprising primarily audiovisual material, the Government of Canada Web Archive, and digitized copies of paper records.  Five petabytes of data would be equivalent to 1,338 metres (4,390 feet) of DVDs stacked on top of one another!

Despite the considerable effort to preserve digital content today, we recognize that there is much more to be done to ensure all digital collections at LAC are protected.

November 30, 2017, marks the first annual International Digital Preservation Day. As a member of the Digital Preservation Coalition, we celebrate this day by launching the Strategy for a Digital Preservation Program. This strategy describes the additional steps needed to further preserve LAC’s digital treasures for the future and ensure that we are on the right path to success.

A colour photograph of a long white shelf on the left and high-density storage on the left.

Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape library of digital documentary heritage that are preserved in the LAC Digital Archive at the Preservation Centre.


Faye Lemay is a manager of digital preservation in the Digital Operations and Preservation Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

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