Between crashes and legacy file formats, there’s a whole host of reasons to be afraid of digital storage. Now imagine you’re the world’s librarians dealing with the only remaining copies of some major texts. Don’t trip over that plug. How do you preserve digital texts for future technologies that haven’t been invented yet?
“The state of things is that we’re in the digital dark ages right now,” Witt said. “We’re losing a ton of valuable information that is electronic because of the transient nature of the Internet and of storage technology and how people use it.”
Tom Cramer, the associate director of digital library systems and services at Stanford University, said that NASA’s inadvertent discovery — that even machine-produced data can be lost to the environment or obsolescence — echoes his own experience. Closer to home, Stanford’s library was tasked with helping the Monterey Jazz Festival preserve its historical recordings from decades ago. Out of hundreds of tapes taken from nearly 40 years of recording history, Cramer said, only one couldn’t be recovered. But audio from a digital format the festival began using in the 1990s wasn’t as reliable: out of scores of those tapes, covering about six years, six were damaged beyond recovery.
So digital preservation encompasses not only the problem of reliable storage and recovery but of how to finance it, how to manage it and how to make such systems sustainable over the long run. For that to happen, though, enough institutions have to participate. The British report, “Mind the Gap,” found that although a slight majority of respondents in the United Kingdom said they had an institutional commitment to addressing the issue, only 20 percent said there was enough funding to tackle it, a third said there were “clear responsibilities” for handling it, and only 18 percent said there was a strategy for digital preservation at all.
Still, Stanford has been one of the pioneers in developing solutions to digital preservation, especially through its Silicon Valley ties to Sun Microsystems, which last year set up the Sun Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group, or PASIG, to bring together leaders in research libraries, universities and the government to periodically meet and collaborate on digital archiving issues.
I was also under the impression that data lost integrity every time it was copied, so that every time a file is moved from one storage space to another, it’s slowly disintegrating. I remember reading something about that long ago. Is that still the case? Do any of my shadowy IT minions know about this? Oh, and people: please pants anyone you hear use the term “cybrarian” in conversation. End communication.