The Design of Archival Information Systems

Christoph Becker


This paper will discuss the design of archival information systems through a set of provocations about the nature of preserving digital objects, and take the ongoing review of the OAIS as an opportunity to reflect on the model’s assumptions, uses, and shortcomings and discuss the role of information systems design in archival practice and education.

Digital objects are not composed of bits – even more, digital objects do not actually exist: The concept is a metaphor used to assign boundaries to the emergent properties of computed phenomena. Significant properties are the mechanism that allows curators to express shared understandings of what constitutes an authentic reproduction of these phenomena. The nature of digital preservation work lies in the design and configuration of systems that support these reproductions.

Insufficient attention to the finer mechanisms of how these objects emerge through computing has caused frequent misunderstandings of the nature of migration, emulation and other preservation interventions, and has contributed to conflated definitions of such key concepts as significant properties. Close attention to the mindset of systems design and its reconciliation of means and ends can support a clearer articulation of key concepts such as significant properties.

Based on a systems design perspective, I will then review prior critique of the OAIS model and highlight how the model conflates abstract concepts and concrete implementation choices. I will show that the model’s failure to effectively separate between concerns attributed to conceptual reference models and technological aspects of systems design is a major cause of the problems raised in practice and discussed in literature.

The paper will conclude with the argument that the conceptual methods of systems design should play a central role in an archives curriculum, and that the nature of digital records as computed performances implies that computing should be offered permanent residence in the archival realm.


Christoph Becker is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he leads the Digital Curation Institute. As Senior Scientist at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, he led a research program on scalable decision support for digital preservation as part of the large-scale EU-funded project SCAPE: Scalable Preservation Environments, which he co-developed with an international consortium of universities, memory organizations, industrial research and commercial partners based on his doctoral thesis on decision making in digital preservation which completed his Doctorate in Computer Science at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria in 2010. Until late 2016, he was Principal Investigator of the project BenchmarkDP and Senior Scientist in Vienna.
He has published widely in the fields of digital curation, software systems, and digital libraries. As co-founder of, he is advocating a new perspective on software systems design. His current research focuses on decision making in systems design as well as systematic evaluation methods in digital curation. His research is funded by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF), the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, and the Connaught Fund.