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Saving It Because I Can

March 17th, 2010 · 1 Comment

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Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my father brought home our first computer. It was a Mac. I can’t recall which model it was, but it was an all-in-one box with a screen the size of a small Kleenex box (I only wish I was joking!). Initially I was suspicious of this computer: having been raised on a steady diet of science fiction and comic books, I knew what computers were capable of. But my father convinced me that computers are only as smart as the person who programs them, so I gave in, turned it on, mastered the mouse and became addicted to computer gaming.

There was one game in particular that I liked. I can’t remember what it was called, but I created a group of witches, elves and trolls and we went on adventures: slayed dragons, defeated evil overlords, rescued princesses – that sort of thing. It was like a single-player, kiddie computer version of Dungeons & Dragons. I loved it, but I was also very bad at it. The computer won every time.

Then one day I had a brilliant idea: I would save my game, build up amazing gaming skills, go back to the game and beat the computer! It made perfect sense to my 12-year old mind. Pesky questions such as how I would obtain these awesome skills and how long it would take never crossed my mind. So I saved the game and did other things on the computer. Around that same time a relative gave me a book on calligraphy and I took that up, eventually becoming so consumed by it that I forgot all about my saved game on the computer.

Years passed by, Dad brought home a new computer and the computer with my saved game was relegated to the basement. Eventually I went to college, got a job and moved away. But before I did I asked Dad if I could take computer with me. He said sure (and probably though, “Yes! That useless thing is finally out of my house!”). Now it sits in my basement, with a game saved on it since 1986.

What do I do with it? How do I access it? Why should anyone care? I admit, that last one is a great question. But what if you were a researcher of late 20th century pastimes? What if you wanted to study how children spent their free time or how they experienced the first personal computers? Suddenly the box collecting dust in my basement is more interesting.

But what are the chances that the library or archive will have the technology to access, preserve and make available the computer’s data? We all know technology has changed rapidly since the mid-1980s (5-1/4 inch floppies anyone?), but there are also different standards. My first computer was a Mac. So not only must a library or archive be able to handle old data, it must be able to handle data in a variety of formats.

Nor is the issue likely to resolve itself any time soon. Although for many business applications the PC is the only option, many in the arts still use a Mac. Libraries and archives that cannot access Mac data will severely limit the research that can be conducted on late 20th and early 21st century digital art – and that’s just one example.

Yet I doubt any library or archive will “have it all.” There’s simply not enough funding to plan for all the different storage mediums and files. One option may be libraries and archives developing expertise in niche areas – for example, a library may have the technological ability to provide access to IBM AS/400 files from the 1990s but not for digital arts files from the 2000s – but this is unlikely as it is a direct contradiction to current collection development policies. Libraries and archives collect on specific subject matter or people, but most people don’t make technology decisions based on which files will be easier for archivists to preserve and make accessible in the future.

To meet these various accessibility needs, we may see the emergence of a new type of vendor: one that specializes in access and preserving old data in a variety of formats (for a fee, of course). In a way, this is already happening. Small libraries participate in union catalogs, and the host often has digitization capabilities. DALNET is a great example: the Library & Archives of the Detroit Institute of Arts had DALNET convert 45 rpm records to digital format that can now be accessed via the library’s online catalog.

In the meantime, I plan to keep my old computer in the basement. Who knows? Maybe some day I will develop amazing gaming skills.

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Category: Digital Obsolescence