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Significant properties, also referred to as “significant characteristics” or “essence”, are essential attributes of a digital object which affect its appearance, behaviour, quality and usability

The significant properties of digital objects


British Library
7 April 2008

Reflections on the workshop 

Significant properties, also referred to as “significant characteristics” or “essence”, are essential attributes of a digital object which affect its appearance, behaviour, quality and usability. They can be grouped into categories such as content, context (metadata), appearance (e.g. layout, colour), behaviour (e.g. interaction, functionality) and structure (e.g. pagination, sections). Significant properties must be preserved over time for the digital object to remain accessible and meaningful.

It is important to understand that significant properties of an object are not fixed traits. Some properties are common and can be applied to a particular type of objects. The level of significance of other properties, however, is subject to subjective judgement depending on the different contexts of creation and use. In some cases, for example, it may be decided that the textual content of a document is the most important element, properties such as layout and colour are not essential to its intellectual meaning; in other cases, if the “look and feel” of the original document forms part of its intellectual content and is considered significant by the creator and the users, then the “look and feel” needs to be preserved. Many factors affect the decisions about which significant properties to maintain, such as institutional priorities, anticipated use by and the knowledge of the designated community, the types of materials involved, and the financial and technical means available.

Proper understanding of the significant properties of digital objects is critical to establish best practice approaches to digital preservation. It assists appraisal and selection, processes in which choices are made about which significant properties of digital objects are worth preserving; it helps the development of preservation metadata, the assessment of different preservation strategies and informs future work on developing common standards across the preservation community.

INSPECT project

The INSPECT project was funded to examine the whole concept of significant properties, determine which properties are significant for a range of object types and assess the importance of each of these for future representation of the object. The ultimate objective was to propose a generalised methodology that will enable resource curators to determine the significant properties of classes of digital objects that must be preserved over time. This project is an important linking element for four further JISC-funded studies.

Significant properties studies

  • Vector Images Study This was undertaken by System Simulation Ltd. (SSL) and Oxford Brookes University
  • Moving Images Study System Simulation Ltd. (SSL) (Draft pre-publication version - chapter 6 needs finalising)
  • Software e-Science Centre, Science and Technology Facilties Council (STFC)
  • e-Learning Objects University of London Computing Centre (ULCC) 

Download the final reports below

Documents & Multimedia