MoMA Digital Repository Manager Ben Fino-Radin has shared a gloriously detailed post on the museum’s blog that outlines how they are archiving digital works. In it, he describes their state-of-the-art ‘digital vault’ for these collections and its related workflows. Below, Fino-Radin explains ‘the packager’ (the first step in the workflow, which also includes the ‘the warehouse’ and ‘the indexer’).
The packager addresses the most fundamental challenge in digital preservation: all digital files are encoded. They require special tools in order to be understood as anything more than a pile of bits and bytes. Just as a VHS tape is useless without a VCR, a digital video file is useless without some kind of software that understands how to interpret and play it, or tell you something about its contents. At least with a VHS tape you can hold it in your hand and say, “Hey, this looks like a VHS tape and it probably has an analog video signal recorded on it.” But there is essentially nothing about a QuickTime .MOV file that says, “Hello, I am a video file! You should use this sort of software to view me.” We rely on specially designed software—be it an operating system or something more specialized—to tell us these things.