Never Let IT Morlocks Ravage Our Common Data Heritage

In January, some data archivists went, not to some place we’d never been to before, but to somewhere we didn’t expect to go to again: they wrote special code to access the content on a haul of nearly 200 2.5 inch floppy disks (remember them!).

What made all this the more noteworthy was that the disks belonged to science fiction TV pioneer Gene Rodenberry, the creator of ‘Star Trek’ – who, it seems, set down a set of interesting ideas in the 1980s on this then-state of the art media.

None of us know yet if there’s a new SF concept in there as ground-breaking as the original voyages of Captain Kirk in the 1960s – the material is as yet only being shown to his estate (see here).

How much of today’s e-chatter is already gone for good?

But what’s really intriguing is what this says about how quickly things become obsolescent in our fast-moving digital world. I had floppy disks, and there’s a fair chance there are a few still in the attic. The chances of them containing ideas for million dollar TV and movie options is fairly low, of course – but we’ll never know, as I have no way of accessing the information on them now.

It turns out that digital obsolescence is a big challenge. The British Library has a special digital collection that’s all about trying to capture some of our collective electronic footprint, and it’s not without its challenges, with various Web formats like Flash proving very hard to work with from the curator’s point of view. So serious is the situation  – and remember, we’ve only had a World Wide Web for 20 plus years – that in the words of Lucie Burgess, Head of Strategy and Planning at British Library, in 2013, “So much of our cultural memory has been lost already; there is a ‘digital black hole’ of the 21st century” (see here).

Archiving is incredibly important. That’s absolutely for your own business, public sector or charity organisation. But it’s also an issue for our common culture. We are creating an insane amount of digital content that will probably not be accessible in just a few years – as my Gene Rodenberry example shows, and I suspect it’s the tip of the iceberg.

All this worries me, as I have been looking at archiving for a number of years. I am a passionate advocate, for example, of the emerging standard for preserving paper content in an electronic format, PDF/A. That offers a very long-term hope for preservation, and I encourage you to look into it when you have time.

But time is, of course, the essence of the issue here. I was interested to hear that Parliament recently reversed a decision to go from vellum to paper (see here), for example. You may or may not know this, but we’ve been using this amazing recording medium – calf skin – to make a permanent copy of the country’s laws for over a millennium; peers had suggested a technology upgrade, but it seems that vellum is a better option from the cost point of view, so we’re keeping it!

One of the definitions of quality is fitness for purpose – a plastic bag is a perfectly high-quality solution for the purpose it’s used for, carrying your shopping home from the supermarket. So, yes, vellum for the laws of the land? Why not.

A dystopian, knowledge-starved world

However, what does worry me about Rodenberry’s disks, the BL’s digital black hole, and the vellum vs paper debate is the issue of compatibility.

The best way I can crystallise this for thedmcollaborators is to ask you to cast your minds back to another classic of science fiction – the first (1960) adaptation of HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine’.

There’s a brilliant sequence where Rod Taylor asks to see the collected wisdom of the incredibly far-flung England he’s ended up in (the movie tells us he’s crashed his Victorian version of the Tardis in 802,701 AD).

His new friend of the time, Weena, takes him to a huge library – where the books, now so old, are so fragile they crumble to dust at his touch. So, data archiving lesson one; if what you are saving onto won’t physically last, you’ve failed the first move.

But then she takes him to a second archive, where more modern, electronic media are available, a sort of special data ‘talking ring’ that produces sound voice play-back when spun on an appropriate surface. Which gives us lesson two of data archiving; analogue is great – so long as you still have the right player!

Which, let’s face it (think of Gene’s 200 floppy disc library) you can’t always assume.

We DM experts need to think long and hard about this one

So, archiving is a big problem and I think we are far too complacent about it.
If items from the 1980s are already out of reach even though it was put on the best option a computer user had, what does that tell us about the risks we’re running now?

Disk, Flash, vellum, the printed page, talking rings – you can’t guarantee any of it will last. PDF/A may not last either, but it’s the best option we have at the moment, in my view.

So I think we need to all work a lot harder on this area in the document management community than we have done to date.

What do you think? Leave me a comment – and have a think about your own archiving projects!


The author is the Director of Sales & Marketing at EASY SOFTWARE UK , Europe’s foremost provider of integrated document and content management technologies which has more than 12,000 customers worldwide

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