The Importance of Digital Archivists

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Quite agreed. Even if the scanning of it does marginal damage to the original document, I think it’s worth it in the long run. (Maybe not if it destroys the document or something.)Report

  2. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    For a second I thought you were talking about archiving digital items like emails and stuff and I thought wait, Uncle Sam is already doing that for us!

    …but anyway, I agree that digitizing historic documents is the Lord’s work.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:


      But for gosh sakes, also create a hard copy or three and store those somewhere too.

      I do worry, as we are in the process of digitizing every word, sound or picture we’ve ever recorded, that if there is any kind of solar event/ massive EMP, it’s going to wipe every hard drive we have.

      You know how lost you are when your hard drive crashes? It takes you weeks to get back on your feet.

      If the entire world’s hard drive gets wiped? Humanity will be screwed for decades, at minimum.

      Paper isn’t perfect, but we managed to read the Dead Sea Scrolls; a Seagate does not have that kind of lifespan.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Optical is optical, isn’t it? Don’t you burn your discs?Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Do I? Sometimes, still. But optical discs actually don’t have that long a lifespan (I think Blu-Ray manufacturers are claiming 150 years, but who knows?); and, some newer computers won’t even come with burners at all – it’ll all just go in “the cloud”(hard drives, again).

          Plus, you need devices to read optical (or magnetic) discs with, and if the devices are all fried (due to the same EMP), well…

          Printed paper actually has some distinct advantages, so long as you keep it dry and bug-free.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            The lifespan of a dvd is dependent on the quality of the engineering. often they don’t last a single burn.

            How does SSD do? Yes, it’s easy to kill magnetic media, but aren’t we moving away from it anyhow??Report

  3. Avatar Pyre says:

    When writing this book, his research found that the U.S. government has roughly 1/5 of the parts needed to restore minimal capacity.

    I worked with a woman who wanted to invest in gold because, if our economy completely collapses, that gold would keep her on her feet. I told her flat out that, if there was a complete collapse, the only good that a gold brick would be is to conk someone on the head for their beans.

    Hell, I was told that I should make an off-site backup of my downloads in case my house burns down. My response was that, if I lost my house, the fate of my Unreal Tournament maps would not really be a concern.

    I say all this because, if there was a worldwide EMP event, historic documents will be the last thing on anybody’s mind, hard copy or not.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Borges: Poem of the Gifts

    Care of this city of books he handed over
    to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
    than read in libraries of dream the poor
    and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

    to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
    squanders on the same eyes its infinite tomes,
    as distant as the inaccessible volumes
    that perished once in Alexandria.

    From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
    a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
    Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
    high and profound, of the blind library.

    Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
    encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
    symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
    are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

    In shadows, with a tentative stick, I try
    the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
    I, who had always thought of Paradise
    In form and image as a library.

  5. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    There are a whole set of questions to ask in addition to the one(s) already raised about the durability of various physical media. I used to debate this topic over lunch with the librarian who cared for our corporate technical library. She was much more pessimistic than I am, proclaiming that if you want to preserve things for the next 100 years, pigment-based inks on acid free paper were the only media that had ever actually accomplished the job.

    (1) Availability of hardware to read the media. At one point, I needed access to a project’s historical data which had been dumped to a particular form of cartridge tape. After much searching, I found that the company still had one reader for that format, tucked away in an IT closet. No one was manufacturing/selling tape readers for the format. My Friday afternoon project for a few weeks was extracting the old data from tapes and putting it on CDR.

    (2) There is a difference in the physical lifetime depending on how well the media is cared for. There was a recent story in the IEEE Spectrum magazine about researchers solving the anomalies in the acceleration of the Pioneer spacecraft. Some of the needed historical data were found on 9-track tapes in moldy cardboard boxes at the bottom of a stairwell. It’s not enough to digitize; you have to have a plan for caring for the media.

    (3) Availability of software that understands the data format. Within the last few years, a former colleague decided to go back and resume working on a math textbook he had started sometime in the past. Even though he had readable files, the format was a relatively early version of Microsoft Word — and more-current versions of Word simply refused to parse the files. Whether software will handle JPEG and MPEG files or not in 50 years is an open question (personally, I would bet on “not”).Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      I’m speaking to a librarian of my acquaintance to see if she would be willing to do a primer post on said challenges, as this is an interesting area of study.Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

      Even though he had readable files, the format was a relatively early version of Microsoft Word — and more-current versions of Word simply refused to parse the files.

      If your colleague is still interested he should try to open them with OpenOffice.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Good news from Timbuktu, folks. Many important manuscripts were saved.

    Reporting from inside the Timbuktu building itself, Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford told viewers that the jihadists had destroyed the center’s contents. Meanwhile, Cissé was quoted on the network’s website as saying, “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts.”

    That is not so, according to those who’ve worked for months to keep the documents safe.

    In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”Report

  7. Avatar Matty says:

    Does anyone remember a science fiction story in which the world stored so much data that indexes of indexes of indexes were needed to search it all and the end effect was the same as not having records?

    Not that I’m saying this is a real risk the post just reminded me of it.

    In the meantime lets get those valuable docs copied in as many formats as possible – maybe even a few stone engravings for a literature equivalent of the Svalbard vault.Report

  8. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Our department, back in the 70s, decided it would be a much better idea than publishing proceedings of our conferences to invest in reel to reel recording equipment and make a library of recordings. They’re nice. Unfortunately, the units they were played on aren’t made anymore and nobody can fix the one we have. I once read the Library of Congress was having the same problem with the Nixon tapes- some of them are sufficiently obsolete that they can’t find machines to play them on or anyone to fix the few left in the world. I’ve heard they had the same problem with some of the first White House emails sent- they were lost when the software used became obsolete. I’m all for digitizing- I’m also currently reading a book from 1867 that’s in fine shape because of how my family store it.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      There’s a booming market in media migration. A quick google of “reel to reel migration” will return dozens of such services.

      Sorta like that line from Men in Black:

      We hold patents on a few gadgets we confiscated from the visitors. Velcro, microwave ovens, liposuction. This is a fascinating little gadget. It’ll replace CDs soon. Guess I’ll have to buy the ‘White Album’ again.Report

  9. Avatar Lyle says:

    Now that we have moved to standards in some areas the chances of the standards not being readable in a number of years (assuming computers still exist) is small. For example take JPEG and TIFF in terms of photos. They have already gone close to 10 years or more. In addition because the file format is publically documented rather than in in house proprietary documentation it makes a difference. With the number of free software viewers of photos where the source code is available, if need be one could run an emulator on an emulator to read the documents. (I recall that IBM 1401 emulators were run on 360s to handle some of the programs for the 1401)
    In addition a lot of the problems came from government only systems, much of the newer stuff is consumer so the cycle time is slower. As to media, that may mean keeping the optical disks in a dry mine, which would qualify as a cool dark place which even photographic film is supposed to be stored at.
    Look today you can find emulators for atari and amiga which were big in the mid 1980s.Report