Ticking time bomb for archived data?

Post ImageI took a class at the University last year called Literary Computing (ENGL 304) which examined “the applications and implications of computing technology to the three pilars of literary studies: reading, researching, and writing.” One of the things we talked about at length was information preservation. If I remember correctly, the class was split right down the middle with half thinking that our digital world was bad for preservation and the other half feeling the opposite was true. As you might expect, I was in the latter group.

I was reminded of the class today when I read this article in BBC News:

The growing problem of accessing old digital file formats is a “ticking time bomb”, the chief executive of the UK National Archives has warned.

The National Archives, which holds 900 years of written material, has more than 580 terabytes of data – the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopaedias – in older file formats that are no longer commercially available.

I fail to see the issue. Is it not the job of the National Archives to ensure that documents and historical information are preserved? And that the public can access such information? Of course it is. Instead of complaining every couple of years about the pace of technological change, why not do something about it? There’s only a “ticking time bomb” if you sit back and do nothing.

Part of the problem is the way archivers look at digital media versus paper:

Ms Ceeney said: “If you put paper on shelves, it’s pretty certain it is going to be there in a hundred years. If you stored something on a floppy disc just three or four years ago, you’d have a hard time finding a modern computer capable of opening it.”

That’s true, as long as you store the paper properly. And that position fails to take into account the advantages of digital media over paper: searching, indexing, encrypting, etc. That’s the trade-off. If archivers were really interested solely in preservation, why not just print everything out on to paper and store that? Clearly more is desired. As with most everything, to get more out, you have to put more in. In this case, that means more effort to take advantage of better functionality.

I don’t understand how the National Archives (and other similar organizations around the world) can claim that some digital documents have been lost forever because programs which can read them no longer exist. Has Microsoft disappeared? Is it impossible to install Windows 3.1 on a computer to open documents? Heck, why not just hire some programmers to write new conversion tools? USB floppy drives can be purchased for around $15. Older drives that read 5.25″ floppy disks haven’t vanished from the face of the earth. It’s simply a matter of effort and determination (and money). This “we give up” attitude makes me sick.

If you shred a piece of paper, or douse it in water, it’s damn near impossible to recover. Have a digital file in a really old format? It might be difficult to recover, but it’s certainly not impossible. It’s all zeros and ones, after all.

That is why I took the position I did in my ENGL 304 class, and why I still haven’t changed my mind.

Read: BBC News

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