The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
MIND: Documenting Invention

Inventing | Documenting | Things to Collect | Resources


Guides to the care and preservation of traditional media like photographs, motion pictures, and sound recordings abound. Recently added to the archivist’s bookshelf, though, is guidance on the special requirements of “born digital” materials.

The digital revolution has influenced virtually every aspect of our lives and inventors are no exception. The bound paper notebooks used by many inventors at the bench for recording data and sketching and drawing have been replaced with digital files, images, and the use of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) drawings. Most inventors use some form of digital technology, often combining recording techniques, such as sketching in pencil and making digital photographs.

Digital formats present challenges for archives or museums that collect, preserve, and make these materials accessible. Especially problematic is the need to maintain playback equipment in order to “read” the data; much of this equipment is rapidly becoming obsolete. It is crucial to know the life expectancy and unique needs of legacy media. Each format has a critical point at which information will begin to be lost.

Curators, librarians, archivists, collections managers, and other staff involved in managing machine-based media collections in cultural institutions should evaluate and discuss with potential donors how the original digital materials were created, and in which formats, so the archivist can advise on best ways to manage the life cycle of the images, files, and other bytes.

Last Update: 28 Dec 2010

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