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Dec 03 2012

What are we missing? What has our culture lost forever?

Why are we researching a solution to the digital preservation challenge?  This is a great question, mostly because we know that important objects are being stored digitally and we do not want to wait for the disaster to happen before we prepare.  Has a digital disaster of data loss already taken place though? 

The truth of the matter is that as humans we are embarrassed of our failures.  We try to hide them.  Failures to preserve our digital objects are no different, we try to sweep them under the rug with an acceptance of the fact that the data is lost for good.  Finding a story of a digital file of historical importance being lost has proved to be difficult thus far (we aren’t giving up yet).  Companies have come clean about their customer data being stolen or lost because that is the best business move and individuals come forward with their stories of computer crashes in hopes of getting help to restore their personal photos and documents.  (Side note – don’t wait to lose all your personal data to learn the lesson of backing up, start now) However, no one wants to take the heat for lost data that may be of historical importance, or maybe we do not even know that it is lost yet.   

You may be saying, what do you mean there are no stories of lost data? Plenty of photos, books, and historical papers have gone up in smoke and other disasters.  We know about much of the physical data that we have unfortunately lost, but I’m talking about 1s and 0s. The pictures that were taken only on a digital camera at a special event, saved onto a computer, and then forgotten to be lost to bit rot, viruses, or obsolescence.  The emails of a prolific author that contained messages with loved ones discussing inspiration for their books that were disregarded.  The blog posts or web pages that stirred a group of people to make change and then were not recovered when the server crashed.  Has anyone taken note of events such as these?

In some cases we have noticed a lack of digital files or data, for example the missing Bush Administration emails, the 1996 election websites, or the Geocities website service that was stopped, and then worked hard to recover as much of that data as possible before it was too late.  Tools like the Wayback Machine that archive the internet help to solve this problem as well.  In my heart of hearts, I still believe that we may be missing pieces of our history because of a failure to preserve digital objects.  Wouldn’t it be a shame to just accept it? Shouldn’t we attempt to note what is missing so that future generations can at least learn from our preservation mistakes?  What are we missing? What has our culture lost forever?

I should note that these questions are not rhetorical.  Please comment and share your stories of data that you were unable to recover, even if it was only personal. What is your data loss horror story? Also please share stories of any historical digital objects (e-mails, documents, photos, websites, music, video, etc) that you think may be lost to us, and we will follow up on your leads!

2 comments

  1. Paul Wheatley

    Following a blog post from Barbara Sierman of the National Library of the Netherlands, various people have been contributing digital disasters to two sites that may be of interest. The first is a Flickr group which is being used to collate images of digital damage:
    http://www.flickr.com/groups/2121762@N23/pool/
    Where possible, the images are given CC licences to allow reuse elsewhere.

    Barbara went on to set up her own site where more story based examples are collated:
    http://www.atlasofdigitaldamages.info

  2. Meg

    Compelling stories and images indeed! I have a personal pet peeve involving the challenges of trying to keep track of links to “live” content on Web pages that people use as support for parts of reports and files that have permanent significance at my institution. Meaning, what trust might we place in the long term record when its supporting evidence is gone?

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