Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Appraisal and disposal > Introduction to disposal

Introduction to disposal

The process of appraisal sometimes identifies material unworthy of permanent preservation; consequently, the issue of disposal and its documentation arises. Ideally, as with paper archives, the repository will have agreed with the depositor whether unwanted material should be returned to the depositor or destroyed. This may depend on whether the archive has been supplied with copies of material, which the creator also retains, or whether the archivist has acquired the depositor's last remaining copy.

Returning digital archives

If digital archives are returned, they should be returned safely and securely and a record of this should be associated with the collection. This return of archives might involve a reversal of the transfer process.

Destroying digital archives

If the depositor opts that the archivist should destroy the unwanted materials, then this should also be undertaken safely and securely and in compliance with the Data Protection Act where relevant. The complete destruction of digital data is not a simple act, but can be simplified if the repository manages the processing of the archives appropriately. Complete disposal requires repositories to understand where copies (deliberate, temporary, deleted and backed up copies) of files to be destroyed are located and how to completely erase the data. The ease with which inadvertent copies of digital data are created, leads us to suggest that digital archives be processed in stand-alone and secure environments rather than general day-to-day office computers, and especially not laptops, which are at greater risk of being stolen. Repositories should also limit and control the number of copies created very carefully.

Paradigm has not thoroughly investigated the topic of secure disposal, but would recommend that those undertaking destruction of sensitive digital materials do. Often the way in which media store data makes it very difficulty to erase material completely. The success of computer forensics in recovering supposedly deleted data is evidence of this. Secure deletion mechanisms usually overwrite the data with randomly generated data to ensure that it is removed; several software utilities exist for secure deletion and Linux and Unix users may simply use the 'shred' command. As well as deleting copies from the repository's own system, the archivist may also need to destroy media supplied by the depositor. This might require special equipment or the services of a specialist contractor.