Should Museums Preserve Digital Media?

Written by Bailey Ochs. Media by Fallyn Paruleski.

With technology advancing every day, many parts of our lives are also changing. You may find yourself discovering Wi-Fi in more and more places, having your smart phone find nearby restaurants for you, or monitoring your caloric intake and exercise schedule on your iPod. These are just a few examples of the various ways that technology has invaded our everyday lives.

Another big change is the switch from using print sources to using digital media. This transition has brought with it both advantages and challenges.  One such challenge is if trying to figure out how to preserve all of the digital media that is being used regularly today.

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Many museum curators are wondering if this is a challenge that they should take on.

The purpose of a museum is to preserve things that are historically significant or valued by a culture so that people can come, view, learn about, and enjoy the artifacts in the future. They display parts of a culture from various points in time so that they will not be forgotten. Art, sculptures, photographs, furniture, writing, and many other aspects of culture are displayed in glass cases in museums around the world for visitors to experience what was significant to a certain people group at a certain time in history.

What is happening now will be history one day. But the way that history is recorded has changed as well.  There are fewer people walking around with notepad and pencil in hand, writing down what is happening for journals and more people snapping photos to share instantly on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media websites. Websites like YouTube and Twitter make it easy for news to be transmitted almost instantly across countries and across the world. Magazines and newspapers almost have to have exclusive information about a story for people to pay for a copy rather than researching the news online or viewing it more quickly on television.  Digital media has been used to capture important recent events such as protests, presidential campaigns, human rights movements, and natural disasters.

Because digital media plays such a large role in our lives every day and captures the art, activities, values, and lives of the people of the twenty-first century, museums are trying to figure out if they should try to preserve this media for the future to experience our current culture. They are asking questions like: Will people come to see something that they can probably find themselves online? How will we make sure that the media is backed up in case something happens to it? What is worth displaying? One option is to have online galleries of digital media that is preserved and displayed by time period and subject. There is also talk of having “open license” so that anyone can access and use the digital media provided by the museum.

However the curators decide to go about the task of preserving the digital media of today, I think that it is important that it is preserved. So much life is captured by digital sources every day. It would be a great loss not to document and preserve what is happening in this country and in the world for the future generations to experience and learn about. What is happening today matters and it should be saved so that it will not be forgotten.


  1. Very true! You have pinpointed the problems! One of the difficulties with a distributed cloud architecture is that nobody is in charge of keeping everything, and random decisions by people all over the world will affect what gets saved and what disappears. Even if museums and libraries start trying to “save everything,” they will hit server space limits and organization limits, and will need to do constant refreshing and data migration to keep data usable. Also there will be choices made about what gets saved and what is ignored, and how it is organized. The Library of Congress is doing a Twitter archive project; just imagine how much raw data that will involve!


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