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Oct 09 2012

Do we like to assume that people think about digital preservation?

My oldest book as a kid was one that had been given to me by a dear friend of my grand-parents. It was a large book with a few photographs and thick pages, published in 1867. I still have it today on a shelf. I pick it once in a while to read a few lines. Years have passed for me and so have they for the computer technology, which has changed quite dramatically fast.

From the time I was doing structural engineering analysis on an old IBM machine and using 5 1/4-inch disks, I soon switched to 3.5 inch floppy disks to save my documents. But, how could I store larger files such as TIFF and JPEG, etc. and most importantly my thesis? What is called the “super-floppy” served the purpose, but will I be able to retrieve my thesis from that 100-MB zip disk today?

Comic depicting the difficulties of preserving material.

Similarly to Cathy, the comic strip in the January 2007 Digital Preservation newsletter of the Library of Congress (http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/news/2007/news_archive0107img.html), I had printed my thesis. Since then, I digitally converted it into a pdf and applied OCR (Optical Character Recognition), however I should not feel more reassured than I was before. The difference is that today I sit on the other side it seems. I am involved in digital preservation with work, which now gives me a better understanding why “during the early decades of computing, the threat of file format obsolescence to the long-term maintenance of digital objects was not widely recognized” (http://www.dpworkshop.org/dpm-eng/oldmedia/obsolescence1.html). Earlier on, my main concern was, “if I break or drop the floppy disk, it would be bad.” I think today, we take it for granted. It is saved, on the computer or not. It is saved.

It is simply different. I don’t necessarily need to store my files on a physical device such a USB x-times-GB Flash Drive or on my computer’s hard drive, except for immediate convenience perhaps, I can simply upload them to the cloud and retrieve them quite rapidly. One constraint is to have internet access.

Perhaps there is no right answer, we like to assume that people are thinking about digital preservation each time they grab a camera for example. How many of us think of TIFF or CR2 before taking some shots on the spur of the moment, which one would want to keep later? How many of us write on or do 3-D design with a proprietary software?

Granted, not everything has to be about digital preservation per se considering the multitude of data produced each day that not everything is to be kept, nonetheless can the process of getting things back be even feasible? It is not just about time and funds – is the file even retrievable?

Amazingly it could be as in the example presented by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his article, Digital Magic: Preservation for a New Era (http://chronicle.com/article/Digital-Magic-Preservation/131091/#top), which led to the retrieval of the video game Paul Zelevansky had formatted on an “old pre-Macintosh Apple II”, called Swallows (greatblankness.com). 

The Train-the-Trainer workshop launched by the Library of Congress’s new Digital Preservation Outreach and Education (DPOE) program is a great way to boost awareness of what digital preservation entails as new trainers will help disseminate that information to their local communities. 

So, is there anything wrong with keeping files on the computer, the fact that I forgot about my thesis being saved on the 100-MB zip disk in a proprietary format? Life just simply went on and I knew I had those files. I will need to get back to those sometime. Similar examples are the use of Corel WordPerfect in legal practice, which causes a readability gap with Microsoft Word (http://law.duke.edu/actech/wordprocessing/) or retrieving files from another proprietary type of format such as VICON Corporation.

Of course, files are backed up for one’s needs and depending on the field of study, such as in medical research, where the outcomes of files will depend on the ‘data use agreement’ or in computer programming where files will be obsolete after few years, what does digital preservation mean? Will it be the same as keeping a book on a shelf? A computer hard disk failure may be the end of one’s priceless data.

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