Saturday, January 24, 2015

Digital Media Preservation

In an old shoebox, in a closet, in a spare bedroom, sits dozens of floppy disks.  If you are under the age of 20, the floppy disk likely only exists to you in a conceptual form.  Next to the floppy disk sits an unending pile of obsolete media formats.  Do you remember records, open reel tapes, mini-cassettes, steno-cassettes? What about VHS, Betamax, Video 8?

This, of course, is not my closet, but a theoretical closet (although I am sure that someone has amassed a large collection of obsolete media formats for their own amusement).

What would happen if within that collection, sat a piece of data that had substantial historical significance and that recording was the only one?  How long do you think it might take to acquire a machine that read, oh, let's say, a photographic plate?

Preservation of digital media is not the only challenge we face in the digital world, but I consider it to be of utmost importance.

Can you imagine a world that exists without the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci), Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh), or Symphony No. 5 (Ludwig van Beethoven)?  What if only one of these masterpieces was lost in history? 

These masterpieces, of course, are not digital, but they represent items that are significant to the world's history.  They are constantly protected and cared for.  They are preserved so that many more generations will have an opportunity to view them, hear them.

If these items were in digital format, would we care for them, preserve them?  Of course we would.  That is why preservation of digital media is vitally important.  Not all data that exists digitally is important (I can guarantee that this post will have little to no impact on generations to come), but there are some digital items that we need to preserve.

We need to consider a process that refreshes digital data and preserves access to archived data.  Promising solutions include migration and emulation.  Migration allows us to update digital data to a form that can be read and manipulated by current hardware and software.  Think about all your VHS Home Videos being recorded to a DVD (I bet if you are under 20, you had to ask your mom or dad what VHS was).  Emulation will allow new technology to mimic the capabilities of their predecessors.

Even when we are able to refresh and preserve access to data, we still we need to face challenges in the digital world, such as, file sizes, processor demand, standardization, and bandwith. 

I often have heard people say, "the Internet is forever."  I wonder if those people realize that digital data is not forever, not if we don't plan for it to be.

1 comment:

  1. One of the biggest problems facing the Smithsonian is keeping the capability to access past media and formats. We take the "permanence" of books, newspapers, and printed document for granted. Digital records are likely to be far less easy to access in the future. I have some old 5 1/4 inch (truly) floppy disks that I have no idea how I would get to what is stored on them - if anything is even still there are all these years. Magnetic fields DO decay over time.