Friday, September 15, 2006

News article: "Unable to Repeat the Past" (Los Angeles Times)

From time to time I'll post interesting news articles that relate to "information agencies and their environment" to our course weblog. (You should feel free to do the same, as all students are authorized to post on our weblog's "front page".) This morning someone pointed me to a Los Angeles Times article entitled Unable to Repeat the Past which talks about the risks we information professionals take when we trust long-term data storage to digital methods:

Digital storage methods, although vastly more capacious than the paper they are rapidly replacing, have proved the softest wax. Heat and humidity can destroy computer disks and tapes in as little as a year. Computers can break down and software often becomes unusable in a few years. A storage format can quickly become obsolete, making the information it holds effectively inaccessible.

No one has compiled an inventory of lost records, but archivists regularly stumble upon worrisome examples. Reports detailing the military's spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, needed for research and medical care, were obliterated. Census data from the 1960s through 1980s disappeared. A multitude of electronic voting records vanished without a trace.

Records considered at risk by the National Archives include diagrams and maps needed to secure the nuclear stockpile and policy documents used to inform partners in the war on terror. Much like global warming, the archive problem emerged suddenly, its effects remain murky and the brunt of its effect will be felt by future generations. The era we are living in could become a gap in history.

'If we don't solve the problem, our time will not become part of the past,' said Kenneth Thibodaux, who directs electronic records preservation for the National Archives. 'It will largely vanish.'

Anyone care to comment? (The full article continues at the link above.)


At 5:09 AM, Blogger Julia said...

I think it's interesting that a lot of the technology that was thought to be a good way to preserve items forever -- for all posterity -- have turned out to be just as, or more, unreliable than the original material. This problem of dependable storage is going to be with us forever, and perhaps the best we can do is to save multiple copies in multiple formats, so that information isn't lost forever for everyone.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Cynthia said...

This relates to a discussion that's going on in the dance community right now. Many companies are converting their videos to DVD format and getting rid of the VHS (or other format) tape. While DVD's are great for rehearsal purposes, some are seeing red flags concerning their usefulness as long-term storage formats. I'm not sure if there is a definite answer to saving this kind of information, but it's certainly an area that needs to be examined closely.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Jamey said...

I have this same concern with some of our personal digital files: pictures, home videos, etc. The only solution I have found, which is only temporary, is putting valuable digital material on archival quality discs. These will still, of course, eventually go out of date as well. I agree with Julia that the best we can do right now is save multiple copies in multiple formats. Hopefully, then if information is lost in one way it will still be retrievable in others.

At 1:38 AM, Blogger Belle And Sebastian said...

I think Julia hit on a key idea. There are too many variables at play to know what format is going to last the longest for which document or media object. One object might last forever on tape while another tape might snap because it was handled or stored improperly.
To this day there are people who swear by the fidelity of a record player over a CD, and having found some of my old CD's and tried to play them after years in storage I have to wonder if I would have had better luck buying vynl.

At 8:42 PM, Blogger lkbronstad said...

It seems like this should have been a biggeer discussion sooner, because anyone who has experience with this kind of technology (computers, dvds and cds-- or vinyl, etc.) probably knows from potentially heartbreaking personal experience how fragile these formats can be. Yet, you can't question the ease with which we can use them to store and access different media. For better or worse (and probably for the worse), maybe this is the way the information- explosion-explosion will control itself, get itself back down to a manageable size: like wildfires to those information ecologies, wiping the records clean so new ecologies with new ideas can begin again (I'm just a little frustrated with the metaphors right now).


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