Saving our digitized past
I heard an interesting story in the 25 May 2010 podcast that was published by PRI’s The World. The episode, titled “Digital genome goes underground“, reports on a project funded by the EU to preserve our digital heritage, or at least some of it. This, according to reporter Clark Boyd, involves the production of a time capsule with five artifacts in digital formats that are in common use today – JPEG, QuickTime, PDF, HTML, and Java. The capsule, which includes information about how to recreate the hardware and software necessary to read the files, was locked into a vault in the Swiss Fort Knox. I looked up the website for the podcast and followed some of the links.
The organization responsible for the initiative is called PLANETS, which stands for “Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services,” and it is coordinated by the British Library. Its members, representing national libraries and archives, research universities and technology companies, hope to create tools and services that will help to ensure the preservation of our digital cultural and scientific assets. As they explain, our increasing use of digital tools to create digital artifacts presents a dilemma. “We are acquiring ever-growing amounts of digital heritage. And yet we store it in formats and on storage media that last only a matter of years.” The solution, or at least a partial solution, is Project Number: 033789, the Time Capsule – A showcase for Digital Preservation. The idea is to highlight the fragility of digital data and to suggest ways in which technology can overcome the problem.
A visit to the Computer History Museum reminds us that technologies that were considered state of the art when they were first introduced were useful for a brief period, after which are treasured purely for their nostalgic value and become another historical artifact.