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Losing Data Meant for Access

December 4th, 2009 · No Comments


After teaching so many archival and technology classes, I began to realize the incredible depth and breadth of our loss of data. Over the last three decades billions of discs have been created and sold and presumably used. What has happened to these discs? To the data? If even 5% was worth saving for historical purposes, that is still about one and a half million discs to save and migrate. Has that been done?

We all know that the answer is “no.” So that means that we need to look at what is important and what level of effort is necessary to save it. I know that we can not save everything and I know that we would not want to. As Nik Cubrilovic mentioned in a recent Washington Post article entitled “Letting Data Die a Natural Death”: “Not only is a lot of this data not important, but do we really want to keep it? I certainly would not want a full account of everything I did in my youth sitting on a server somewhere. I am also certain that we do not want the record of our as a society time being documented and discovered by future civilizations based on Twitter messages.”

Yet, how much is lost that we have accepted and are wistful for? Some of my own graduate papers written on 5 1/4” floppies were not salvageable. That is of course, a personal loss that matters to NO ONE else but me.

What about the loss of communication histories in Presidential administrations? It took NARA six years just to process the Clinton presidential emails. (I am not sure how many people they had working on it, but that certainly sounds overwhelming!) Assuming that each succeeding administration will have geometrically more, what effort will it take to separate the diamonds from the coal? Add into that the constant evolution of tools like Instant Messaging, Texting, etc. and where will historians be able to turn to determine how national decisions were really made? Or have we EVER had that, even in a paper driven world of the past? Doesn’t everyone edit trails that reflect badly on them?

In the article “The E-Memory Revolution,” Jim Gemmell and Gordon Bell talk about the new “digital person” that has a “total recall” to their life as it is all in “e-memory.” They talk about patrons asking librarians about helping them to build new connections for them to their content. As an archivist, I ask, “In what format will their 20, 30, 40, or 50 year old history be?” How many of us can access our data from a phone that we had one year ago? These digital tools are wonderful BUT they are transitory.

They are primarily to transmit current records. Whether an email joke to all your friends or a tweet to meet someone at a concert. The problem is that we also have history making decisions ONLY in email form and new marketing ideas only documented on Twitter. So for future researchers, how will they take your 1000 new weekly emails and get the funding to sort through them?

Is it the same way that the 4 billion floppies manufactured by 2003 (according to one site which I can no longer find, how ironic!) and the 200 million Zip discs manufactured in 1999 alone (according to that same site) were handled? My 15 years of experience tells me that only a fraction of a percent might have been migrated. Is that a loss? Maybe we will never know? Because without the data we don’t know what we don’t know. Is everyone comfortable with that?

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Category: Digital Obsolescence · Media Obsolescence