Does Digital = Disposable? (Part 1)

by Jeremy Heil

Image of diskettes, tape and other archival media
What would you do if you were told that all of your family photo albums would simply disappear in the next five years? Would you take action to ensure the contents would live on in some form, by copying the photos, reprinting them or storing them in a secure location? Or would you simply let it happen? Chances are, these records mean something to you. The photos don’t just sit in a box; they are organized and kept by you or someone you know, and recall some special memory.

Unfortunately, the rapid loss of our own history is precisely the dilemma we all face today. Digital photography is the norm, but few people actually take the appropriate precautions or considerations with their jpegs to ensure they can still be viewed five years from now. And it’s not as if the colours simply fade – a loss of a few bits – the 0s and 1s that make up digital files – can destroy the entire image forever.

Most people don’t give it a second thought. Nowadays we create almost everything on computers, smartphones and other technology. It is a “born digital” world, and I am now writing this article in a Word document, to be copied and pasted into this blog (no trees were harmed in the creation of this post).

A year ago, I completed a six-month sabbatical studying just this dilemma – how do we, as archivists, preserve the digital memory of our institution and our private donors? On the surface, the question is quite straightforward. Just as people write and type to paper, photograph to film then print to paper, and record sound to tape, they now do all of this to digital media (hard disk, flash memory, etc.).

But the move from a tangible to an intangible storage medium is fraught with many problems in the long term. Do you have the disk drives to read 5¼” floppy disks? Zip disks? Even 3½” floppies are seldom used anymore. On the software side, most of the popular word processors can read documents that were created by previous versions of the software, but not without the loss of some vital information. And to top it all off, we are generating more records each and every day than we ever have in human history.

The Archives are the end of the road for records of lasting value and historical significance. Once they have outlived their usefulness to their creators, Archives are tasked with maintaining these records forever. It is this concept that escapes most – this is not five years (the life cycle of most new technology), twenty-five years (the point at which most people forget what the old technology was like) – this is multiple lifetimes, extended for centuries. We have been the repositories of human history since the beginning of the written word, and now we are the keepers of future memory. What we preserve now will be seen and used by our progeny to understand and interpret our lifetime. What we lose will form wide gaps in this understanding.

There is no doubt that we have lost some history by virtue of technology progressing at a faster rate than our ability to preserve the records created. This does not mean that all is lost, though. Even paper can crumble into many pieces, never to be seen again – it happens all the time! Flood, fire, pests and so much more are the enemies of the historic record. Only now in the digital age, we face new enemies in the guise of rapid progress and obsolescence. Loss of records through negligence, benign neglect and ignorance of their importance is serious, and serves to undermine most Archives’ preservation efforts. The truth is, Archives can only preserve what records they receive.

Next time, I’ll tell you what you, as a records creator, can do to preserve your digital records.

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One Response to “Does Digital = Disposable? (Part 1)”

  1. Joanne Stanbridge, Kingston Frontenac Public Library Says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent overview of an important subject. I’m already looking forward to the next installment!

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