Written by Matthew Davidson

Have you ever wondered what it takes to preserve our community history? Are you curious about what the Museum staff do inside the History Centre?

In recognition of World Digital Preservation Day, we want to show you how Goulbourn Museum helps preserve our collective history through digitization and digital preservation work – an increasingly important part of our role.

Like most museums, our collections are primarily comprised of physical objects. Some of those artefacts, such as the gunter’s chain currently on exhibit, can be viewed at the Museum at any time. However, that isn’t the case for everything. A number of the objects in our collections can only be accessed digitally, making digital preservation essential to maintaining our history.

To understand why, let’s take a look at the “Reminiscences of the Normandy Invasion” film currently available on the Goulbourn Museum YouTube channel.

Saving a Film

In 1994, the 50th anniversary of “D-Day,” the Richmond branch of the Royal Canadian Legion produced a film to document the stories of Goulbourn Township veterans who participated in the invasion. Across three hours of footage, fifteen oral histories were committed to tape so that those local stories could be preserved.

Despite the efforts of those involved with making the film, however, by 2020 the veterans’ stories were nearly lost. A researcher looking for the footage found that it was almost impossible to find copies of the film anywhere, as not even the Richmond Legion had a copy anymore. The only place to still have the film was Goulbourn Museum – but because of its age and format we couldn’t just watch it on-demand.

As with most films produced at the time, “Reminiscences of the Normandy Invasion” was recorded to VHS videocassette. By 2020 the VHS format had long fallen out of use, though, thereby making the film’s content relatively inaccessible. Over time the film had deteriorated, too. Consequently, the film needed to be digitized – that is, converted into a digital format – for it to remain viewable.

Fortunately, the Museum’s collections department had arranged for the film to be digitized as part of a standing effort to secure analog media before degradation. Using specialized equipment, the Museum produced an MP4 file of the film that could be easily viewed and shared. The researcher and the Legion were therefore both able to get a copy, and Goulbourn Museum was henceforth able to upload a copy to YouTube.

What had been an at-risk recording was suddenly fully available to the public at all times. 

Preserving the Film

It might seem like putting “Reminiscences of the Normandy Invasion” online is enough to ensure continued access, however the story of the film doesn’t end there. To ensure that the footage remains accessible, the new digital copies need to be archived and preserved just as the original tape had to be.

The response from the Legion provides a case-in-point. Initially, the Legion was unsure of what to do with the digital file that Goulbourn Museum had provided. They had no centralized digital archive in place, so the film was likely to be lost again whenever the computer it was saved on stopped being used – the same problem that most of us have with our own digital photos and videos. A digital copy of the film therefore did not guarantee that it would remain available.

In recognition of this problem, Goulbourn Museum is committed to properly archiving the digital components of our collections (which includes material we have digitized ourselves as well as digital donations from the community). We maintain preservation copies of all the items in our digital collection in a centralized location, with multiple backup copies available to ensure that we don’t lose anything. And as with our physical collections, we catalogue everything we have to ensure that we maintain what’s known as “intellectual control” over our collections.

On top of that, the Museum works to ensure the integrity of our digital holdings – because just as a videocassette can degrade, digital files can also decay or be damaged. By performing a “checksum” of a file – which essentially registers a digital fingerprint – we can guarantee that our files remain unchanged and have not experienced any failure, “bit rot,” or have not inadvertently been altered by human error. In other words, we can guarantee that our digital collections stay the same over time and are properly preserved.

As a final step, the Museum’s collection staff monitors the file formats underlying our digital collections; after all, digital formats fall out of use just as analog formats such as VHS have fallen out of style. In those instances, collections staff will convert files to a new, more widely supported format to ensure continued access. We will probably need to do so soon for the D-Day film, in fact, as video files such as MP4 have been deemed an at-risk format by the Digital Preservation Coalition. 

As with the preservation and care of the Museum’s physical artefacts, digital preservation work isn’t really a public activity. But without it, films like  “Reminiscences of the Normandy Invasion” and the rest of the Museum’s digital collections quickly become inaccessible. 

Preserving Our Collective History

Of course, part of the story of the Legion’s D-Day film isn’t all that unique. Many of us have old tapes or CDs sitting around that we can longer access or that are deteriorating in a box somewhere (perhaps alongside photos, documents, or heirloom objects that could also use some care). Many of us have also lost photos, videos, and other files when computers died or the files were corrupted. It’s only the preservation part of the story that is unique – but it doesn’t have to be.

As Goulbourn Museum is committed to caring for and preserving the digital record of our local community, the Museum will soon be opening a public digitization station so that members of our community can better preserve their own history. The Museum will also gladly take relevant digital donations (whether digitized or “born-digital”) that showcase or detail the region’s history. We want to make sure that our local stories don’t get lost – as with the Legion’s D-Day film, we can ensure that our local history is documented and preserved.

Want to know more about digitization or digital preservation at Goulbourn Museum? Get in touch with our Digitization Strategy Coordinator!