Technological obsolescence and digital preservation

Image from Pixabay CC0 public domain

With the rapid growth of technology in the past decade, our lives have gotten easier. We can send an email instead of writing and posting a letter. We can download our music, and save all our important files onto a tiny USB to carry in our pocket.

But how will people of the future reconstruct important information about our time from this digital information? Where historians could previously read through old journals and letters, will they be able to locate and view old emails or word documents? It is doubtful the software and hardware will still be usable. Just like you cannot access information that is saved on a floppy disk now, all of our technology may eventually become unusable.

This is a pressing issue, known as ‘technological obsolescence’, and risks leaving us in a ‘digital black hole’ with all of our important information and culture lost for future generations. This article in The Guardian summarises the key issues quite nicely.

Not only does the storage media we use (CD’s, USB’s etc) have a large chance of deteriorating or failing, the hardware used to run the media must be working (for example, Apple MacBooks no longer come with CD drives), and the software to read and understand the files on the media must be available too. This timeline (from Cornell University Library) demonstrates the media, software and hardware that has already come and gone. And this infographic shows the lifespans of digital storage media. It’s all happening very fast, and we need to actively work at overcoming the challenges this poses.

Many information organisations are working towards developing plans and procedures for preserving all of this digital information. Projects such as PANDORA are attempting to archive web pages in Australia, while the Wayback Machine’s internet archive has a broader focus. Other strategies involve migration (an ongoing process where digital information is continually moved onto newer technologies to ensure it remains accessible), emulation (where obsolete systems are imitated on newer systems), maintaining older technologies or simply creating analogue versions (like printing it out!). However, one of the main issues with these strategies is the cost involved.

Another issue is selection. Even if we have the means to preserve digital information for an extended time – how do we choose what to preserve? Everything? While we might be able to select things that are obviously important, there may be documents whose importance is not realised until hundreds of years later. How can we cater for this? And how can we ensure that context and meaning are preserved, not just the object itself? Other issues to consider relate to intellectual property and copyright (e.g. Digital Rights Management technologies obstructing preservation and access).

There are many unanswered questions at the moment, and many people are working at developing solutions. Open standards such as XML, which are independent of any particular hardware or software, may provide a step in the right direction. People and institutions must put digital preservation at the forefront of their minds, and pre-emptively set up strategies for preservation right from the beginning. The National Library of Australia provides a wealth of information for those wanting to learn more, as well as a Digital Preservation Policy that could easily serve as a model for other institutions. The Digital Preservation Coalition also has a great handbook with strategies and activities for organisations (you have to download the PDF version to view).

Hopefully, we will collaboratively develop a sustainable global response to preserve our information in perpetuity.

  • Have you or your workplace thought about digital preservation and how technological obsolescence will affect your information in the future?
  • What policies, procedures or actions have you or your workplace taken to safeguard your information?

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

 

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