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Digital Fragility is Just the Beginning

May 4th, 2011 · No Comments


There has been much written recently about digital fragility. Researchers and archivists have heard dueling longevity and futuristic projections. In trying to push this dire need without appearing like Chicken Little, I have embarked on serious primary research to expose the sheer volume of the problem. The in-depth article will be coming out in a professional journal within the year. Until then, I felt that I needed to speak up a bit about the need for our activism.

Between my teaching digital archiving courses and my work with clients, this issue has been prevalent in each work day. In fact, while re-processing an archives for a client, a case of 5 ¼” floppy discs were found. No one in-house knew exactly if these were of value, what was on them or even if they were created by the organization. When we offered to open them on a computer with a floppy drive, we were told just to throw them out. This is the fear that archivists are living with. Each time an archivist approaches this obsolete media, the questions come: How many others are out there? How many are being thrown out because it is easier? How many are left? How long do I save them? If I am able to find a player/drive/ etc. will I be open the software that the data is formatted in? Will it even be playable? Are we missing decades of human knowledge? How long will this continue? How can archivists slow down the moving train of media change? Can archivists increase re-formatting awareness? Is reformatting my only option? Where does emulation stand? Who do I call? Who do I write? How do I make a difference in this loss that flies in the face of everything my profession holds dear?

A colleague, Tom Featherstone, once told a class “Archivists get paid for throwing things out.” After the horrific silence, he explained that we cannot save everything. Archivists place value on what is received, appraisal occurs and the kernels of importance are retained.

In today’s Digital Age, few are seeing the kernels, the wheat, and perhaps even the farm!

A recent IDC/UC San Diego study estimated that the average American is taking in 34 gigabytes of information per day. As an archivist, let’s think about the volume of data that is being created and disseminated. If even half of one percent were historically significant, we still have a large preservation problem.

The loss of corporate, academic and personal data from the late 1980s to the current time is tragic for future generations of historians, technologists, anthropologists and sociologists. We are nearing twenty-five years with little implementation of preservation processes. This is not to say that Archivists have not offered plans. This is to say that they are not being followed. In pure sales terms, we have NOT “sold” the crisis to the people. This is not to imply that the issue is not real, it means that the dry facts were not enough to convince people of the crisis. More facts had to be gathered. Now a true implementation plan with typical business practices needs to be created.

Here are the options:

      1) Do nothing and continue to sweep up after mass dumps of data. Process what passively comes to us. Complain a little (or a lot) and do the best that we can with the little that we receive

      2) Be moderately proactive to educate the general public on the loss of human knowledge. Start education workshops at local archives, issue press releases individually and work at the grassroots level to educate your donors and users.

      3) Be passionately proactive and begin a coordinated media campaign aimed at the public and the computer industry to work with archivists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists to stop the destruction of electronic records on all media. Work this campaign hand in hand into a reformatting program that is easy. Much like the environmentalists needed to educate consumers (e.g. “Reduce Reuse Recycle”). Catchy phrases work.

One of the biggest complaints leveled against our largest member associations is that they do not get involved in the issues that are most impactful for our day to day work. There is NOTHING bigger to archives than this, right now. Member associations are built on exactly that, their members. We can choose to have a voice.

How each professional decides to act on this data is an individual choice, but a large percentage of archivists and other professionals impacted by this severe and irreparable data loss would be a dominant force in the media, to donors and to the computer industry.

For twenty five years, archivists have been that little chick crying about disaster. It is time we grew up and became the rooster at the farm, crowing for the populace to wake up.

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Category: Archiving Challenges · Digital Obsolescence · Media Obsolescence · Preservation