Saturday, June 11, 2011

Palin emails and digital preservation

(This post has nothing to do with Sarah Palin as a politician, or celebrity, or anything closely resembling politics.)

Photo by Brian Wallace/Associated Press

Copies of something like 24,000 pages of emails sent to and from then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin were released this week. I took interest in the fact that they were released in the form of thousands of pieces of paper. Upon receiving the paper news organizations began a frantic project of scanning and crowd-sourced researching the emails. While on first observation this migration of the emails from electronic to paper may seem odd, wasteful, and somewhat anachronistic (why didn't they just give the news organizations the electronic files?) I think it reflects some deeper preservation challenges.

Virtually all modern information today begins its life digitally. Whether that information is an email, tomorrow's Washington Post, or the next Stephen King novel. This digital information may then be reformatted into another format like print. The print version can then also be reformatted into things like microfilm. (This digital beginning and ease of format migration makes it more challenging to decide which is the original/authentic version.) Each of these formats can be preserved but each of these formats present their own preservation challenges.

With preserving emails, unless you've got the skills and services in place to ensure long-term digital preservation, then printing and storing in a good environment is probably the most effective technique. I know that state governments are rapidly building up their digital preservation capabilities, but sometimes putting something on paper is just the safest way to go. And we are seeing how quickly this print collection can be scanned back into digital form.

I'd be curious to know the State of Alaska was archiving Palin's emails in paper format, or if they preserve them digitally and printed them for dissemination.


  1. The paper wasted to print the emails ironically reflects Palin's positions on the environment. Take, take, take.

    Or maybe they printed them to ensure that they wouldn't be easily edited and altered, though once scanned, anything would be possible.

  2. Your comment about the print not being easily edited and altered highlights one more challenge with digital preservation - ensuring authenticity. Ensuring that a document has not been altered is much easier with print than with digital.