From time to time at CleanPix we get this question, or perhaps it takes the form of: Are the SD flash memory disks that are used with my digital camera a reliable way to keep my photo collection forever? Is there, in fact, a true way to preserve a digital file? The more we dig for a definite answer, the more we get: NO, there is not. Are my files at risk of evaporation… Remember the Alexandria library where the plans of the pyramids were kept? Or do we just assume they were there? YES, digital evaporation or, for that matter, failed retrieval, taking the form of the unfriendly “unreadable data”, is quite possible.
Here are some of the factors at play: File formats change constantly, the software versions that read these formats as well as the hardware and their operating systems seem to thrive on obsolescence. The sheer amount of digital bits, the cataloguing/indexing methods, the need for redundancies of storage and location are all part of the archival equation. And most important is ease of retrieval. (We already know: “Your call is important to us, we are busy serving your competition, please stay in the queue… then push the pound key to listen to this message again.”) Talking about pounds, it comes to mind (not to discourage anyone), that that the human body has more retentive ability to preserve fat than any digital system has for the files it so gluttonously ingests!
Here are some interesting notes:
Although this article was published in 2002, (this article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 10.51 GMT on Sunday 3 March 2002 ) it appears that at least the concept in this article and its relevancy remain preserved to this date.
“Digital Domesday Book lasts 15 years not 1000″
In a bid to rescue the project, Paul Wheatley has begun work on Camileon, a program aimed at recovering the data on the Domesday discs. ‘We have got a couple of rather scratchy pairs of discs, and we are confident we will eventually be able to read all their images, maps and text,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t know what we will do after that. We could store the data on desktop computers – but they are likely to become redundant in a few years.’ Source
In further digging on the subject and the science of digital preservation, I retrieved this “touché” webpage that should, if nothing else, poke a serious dent in the illusive notion of digital archiving. (Note, in this case I took a picture of the webpage for fear of imminent evaporation.) Perhaps we should not just yet add “digital archive” (an oxymoron?) to Wikipedia.
There are, in fact, serious efforts and new conceptual approaches to solve the dilemma, but first, I think, we have to really look beyond IT and it’s terabyte devices to the professional librarians who, from Alexandria to now, have been in the business of dealing with archives. One thing that particularly struck me conceptually is that it appears that digital is better at being live than archived. So why not give it life? Here is one librarian, Brewster Kahle, revealing that the secret to the organization’s success is in keeping it simple in a vision opting to give access to the world of knowledge freely to the world. In his words: “We are allergic to secret sauce.”
Thinking about it, I have written on this WordPress blog platform now for several months. Did anyone at CleanPix make a copy of all this stuff, anywhere but on WordPress? … oops!
The latest digital archiving solution has a problem of its very age
Making alternate copies is likely core to any 101 classes on digital archiving. I must say that when I did my graduate studies at R.I.T. in photography, the museum practice course did not include “digital” anything in the subjects…yet. In the mid 1980s, the Encyclopedia Britannica was in its heyday in its printed voluminous form. Now it exists in its entirety in a complex configuration of zeros and ones. But the core archiving methodology learned then remains still valid: to date, not enough time has elapsed to definitely validate any digital archiving practices. This simply means that the latest digital archiving solution has a problem of its very age. This is the nature of new evolving digital technologies.
At CleanPix we are prone to say, in the context of a “green environment’”, that “dealing with digital files digitally is the only way to go” (using the internet as opposed to flash drives and CD burning etc.). This slogan may turn up to be more true on more levels than we first thought. For the shear pleasure of it, if we interpolate from the famous E=mc2 equation where mass contains all its energy, we could derive a parallel where digital is energy, and when stored as mass (mechanical) it becomes “heavier” to deal with. I knew that sooner-than-later I will find a twist to insert Einstein in this blog and perhaps share with you this awesome NOVA video that put relativity, relatively understandable and certainly entertaining. Here is an abstract of the video: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/preview/q_3213.html