Assessing and Quantifying Risk to Digital Media Materials

The following contribution is written by former UM School of Information students Sarah Breen, Alix Norton, and Alexa Hagen as part of their coursework for UMSI 581 Preservation Administration. The risk assessment they provided was an important tool in our preservation planning process. We will be writing more about actions taken to preserve this valuable material in future posts.

Archives are increasingly facing challenges in preserving digital media materials; creating digital processing workflows and workstations is one often discussed challenge. However, building a case for supporting the costs of running a workstation as well as determining the prioritization of processing digital media are less frequently discussed issues. Below, we present a framework for assessing risk of loss to digital archival materials using a case study of a digital media collection. This methodology can highlight materials most susceptible to loss which can be used to make a case to administrators for the need for immediate intervention and processing.

The collection used in this assessment is the Altman Physical Digital Media Collection, belonging to the Robert Altman Archive held in the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan. The entire collection includes over 1000 linear feet of archival material, and the subcollection comprised of digital media includes 1.06 terabytes of data on over 600 physical digital media items in a variety of formats. The goal of this project was to assess the risks to the media items over the next decade, which could be presented to leadership in order to build a case for timely digital processing. The methodology used in this project gives quantifiable risk rankings transparently and avoids “black box” calculations.

In order to assess the risk to these digital media items, we used a formula previously used by conservators and museum curators like Robert Waller and Anna Bülow for calculating risk to physical collections. The formula yields a calculation of the magnitude of a given risk (MR) by multiplying the factors of the fraction of the collection that is susceptible (FS), loss of value (LV), probability of risk (P), and extent of the risk (E). By giving each of these factors a value between 0 and 1, we calculated MR values for the overall magnitude of a variety of risks, also between 0 and 1. While this formula is often used to assess risks over a 100 year period, due to the nature of the short lifespan and rapid obsolescence of digital media, we have used this formula to assess risks over a 10 year period. We classified these risks as either external and internal. External risks would affect the collection as a whole, and would include fire, theft, water damage, extreme temperatures and relative humidity (RH), damage from natural disasters, and lack of funding to continue preservation projects. Internal risks would be more specific to the type of physical digital media format and its inherent vice. These risks include obsolescence of format and media degradation. More information and the complete list of values used in the calculation of these risks are available at this link.

After calculating the magnitude of all risks affecting the collection, we devised a scale of severity such that MR values greater than 0.3 are considered severe risks, MR values between 0.1 and 0.3 are moderate risks, and MR values below 0.1 are low risks. After ranking these, we found that the highest risks mostly reflect the inherent issues of the media formats, namely obsolescence and degradation of content. Management, funding, and other administrative decisions can also be areas of high risk. For the most part, the storage environment for the physical items was considered satisfactory for the near future of this collection.

The highest risks we assessed include a) degradation and obsolescence, b) lack of funding, and c) potential loss of management support. We recommend that actions be taken to mitigate these risks early by implementing a workstation and migrating digital content to a stable content management system, lowering relative humidity of the storage environment, securing the lowest cost digital storage option that remains aligned with the library’s policy, and creating clear arguments for the need for preservation in order to advocate to library and university administration. We believe these recommendations will significantly reduce the highest risks to this collection and help ensure the preservation of the digital information contained therein.


Further reading:

Bülow, Anna E. "Collection Management Using Preservation Risk Assessment." Journal of the Institute of Conservation 33.1 (2010): 65-78. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <>.

Waller, Robert. "Conservation risk assessment: a strategy for managing resources for preventive conservation." Studies in Conservation 39.Supplement-2 (1994): 12-16. <>.