Preserving Digital Photography: A Recent Project

disk image screen

In 2017-2018, Archives & Special Collections undertook a disk-imaging project to ingest and preserve the “born-digital” photographs (created electronically) found in the Center for Biomedical Communications Collection, 1980s-2008.

Officially established in the 1980s to centralize photography, videography, medical illustration, and general art services for the four health science schools of Columbia University and other clients at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the Center for Biomedical Communications created an extensive visual record for the campus during the end of the 20th and early 21st century.

With the advent of digital photography, the Centers’ photographers transitioned from traditional analog to digital photography during this time and saved all images to optical disc by 2005. After closing in 2009, the Health Sciences Library acquired the collection and provided access to the born-digital records, on-demand.

Problems That Do Not Go Away...

boxes of archival records

Eventually, Library staff encountered problems with disc failure. These images posed a preservation risk due to disc media degradation and software and hardware obsolescence, in addition to difficulties in access. Since the bulk of these images do not have corresponding hard copy prints, these photographs—the visual record of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center community— were at risk of being lost.

Developing Solutions...

Compared to paper-based and other analog formats, born-digital records pose unique challenges for archives and libraries, not the least in safeguarding authenticity while maintaining access indefinitely with file formats and systems that constantly evolve.

Example of BitCurator environment
Example of BitCurator environment

Thankfully, institutions and professionals have been tackling these issues over the past 20 years, forming standards and best practices for the ingest, preservation, and storage of born-digital records, as seen in the OAIS reference model (Open Archival Information System) first developed to address data produced by NASA and other space agencies. Likewise, archivists have delved into the field of digital forensics and curation, creating practical tools supported and promoted by organizations such as BitCurator Consortium and the Library of Congress, among others.

Through a series of steps involving surveying, sampling, literature research, workflow testing, vendor bids, and cost analysis, Archives & Special Collections staff decided to image* the discs in order to capture all content--including the file directory information--in the most efficient manner.


After an initial pilot project, over 2,500 optical discs were completed by 2018.

The results of this project have led Archives & Special Collections to revise policies and procedures for accessioning born-digital records, collection documentation and donor agreements. Although we have not yet created access copies for the estimated 800,000 images, the disc imaging process was an important start in the assessment of technical requirements at our institution for accessioning, ingesting, storing, and retrieving digital archives while ensuring the records’ integrity.

*Disc imaging, or capturing an image of the disc and its file system sector by sector, is a method of capturing electronic records stored to media. For this project, an ISO file was created for each optical disc.