Hi, everyone. Leo Notenboom for askleo.com. By now you know, or you certainly should know, I’m a big fan of the digital. I’m a big fan of digital photography, digital video, digital document retention, digital … everything, basically.
And I say that, because one of the big lessons that I have, that I try to share with people, is that digital is significantly easier to back up than just about other format you can think of. If you’ve got a piece of paper that’s fantastic; it’s the original, but if anything happens to that one piece of paper, you no longer have your original. Anything else will be either a copy (a lower quality copy) or just not exist, which is what we find happening way too often when there are things like fires and such.
So, like I said, digital is so trivial to copy that makes backing up realistic. It makes it possible; it makes it downright easy. There’s simply no reason with a proper backup strategy that you would ever lose a digital document. Or is there?
So, one of the things, one of the arguments against digital document retention in particular, but it also happens for digital music, photography and video, is that things change. Over time, things change. How do we know today that the document we’re storing, the videos that I’m creating, the audio that’s getting produced is going to be saved in a format that will understood and recognizable ten year from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now. We don’t.
The issue is, also, with respect to physical media. However I store this video or these documents, how do I know that ten years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, people will have any way of actually physically retrieving the document off the media that I chose? If you’ve got old floppy disks lying around your home, you’re facing this already.
You’ve got documents or files on those floppy disks and there’s a good chance you no longer have a machine that could read them. There are currently still alternatives; there are ways to get the documents off of those floppy disks, but are they gonna be here ten years from now? I don’t know. I can’t tell you. We’re seeing also, with these very slow disappearances, with things like the CD-ROM drive or the DVD drive from laptops and occasionally even desktop machines.
Now all relying on ubiquitous connectivity to serve the same function. You don’t necessarily get your programs installed from a DVD; you actually download them from an online source. It’s an assumption that a lot of manufacturers love to make because making something available online is a heckuva lot cheaper than physically producing DVDs by boxing them up and shipping them out and doing whatever they do to get the product in your hands.
Again, how do we know that 10, 50, or 100 years from now, things like CDs, DVDs, whatever follows them are still going to be around? The answer ultimately is that we don’t. We don’t know that those will be around. We can make some assumptions, some very broad assumptions about digital formats.
For example, I think there’s a very high likelihood that PDF files will be readable 100 years from now. They may be considered old and arcane, but the fact is there is so much information being preserved and presented in PDF format today, that it seems unlikely that all that would be discarded so readily by something as simple as not being to understand and display the format.
I think that’s going to be around for a while. Jpeg files – around file; mp3 files – all your music, that’s going to be around for a while. Will there be better, newer, higher quality alternatives in the future? Very likely. But will support for these “ancient” at that time, formats go away? I suspect not.
There are still issues. For example, what if you’ve got a document in a more arcane format? Something that is less popular today? Maybe a word processor original document that is no longer something that is popular; no longer something that is supported. Maybe it’s a Works document. I’ll just throw that out there for example.
What are the chances that a .wks document will be readable in its native format in a 100 years from now? I’m going to call that one a coin toss because we really don’t know. And coin tosses aren’t what we want to rely on for digital archiving for long-term preservation.
What’s true, digital archives are faced with doing is two things: Understanding the formats that they have and making sure that as new formats arise, documents are migrated into those new formats. So, for example, right now, this video’s being recorded in .mp4 format.
Will that be around 100 years from now? Again, I suspect so but let’s say that it’s risky; let’s say it’s riskier than my assumption would have us believe. It would behoove archivists of the future to do the work; to translate, automatically, this format into whatever the appropriate format of the future would be.
Presumably it would be higher quality; there would be no image quality loss but that’s a step that would need to be taken. Again, it could be taken automatically but it’s something that digital archivists need to think about it. It’s something that a lot of people need to think about.
The same is true for physical formats. I no longer have floppy disks. Why? Because I copied all of the content off the floppy disks that I wanted to retain to hard disks. Some time ago actually. So, I may not have a floppy disk reader (I think I do but I don’t think I can use it anymore). But even if I didn’t, that’s okay because I’ve migrated all that data.
I’m doing the same thing with my CD archives. My archives of documents and backups that I care to keep for a long time. I’m actually very slowly copying off the contents of those CDs on to what are now significantly larger hard disks that have no problem with the capacity issues.
Today, it’s a simple copy operation. Tomorrow, who knows what it will be in terms of format changes or hardware required to be able to read the old media so again what digital archives the second part of digital archiving is as much about making sure that the data is preserved in a format that can be accessed and copying it if it looks like the current format is something that’s not going to be supported over time.
These are hard problems to solve. I don’t want to discount people’s concerns that digital data can be lost over time because it can. But the issue is that what we have with digital data way more so than with paper or other physical forms of documentation is we have options. We have so many options. Not just for backing the data up but also for ways in which to retain it.
For ways in which to distribute to multiple different locations so we’re not at risk of things like an archive bursting into flames. Other copies, again, backup copies of all that happens, all that information can be stored in multiple locations. We no longer have to experience the devastation that was the loss of the library in Alexandria, for example.
Consider if all of that stuff, however many thousands of years ago, consider if all of that stuff had been available digitally and replicated somewhere else. That data would still be around today. And even if there were no readers available to be able to decipher the documents at that time, we will be able to create them. Software can be written to understand and decode even the file formats that today we no longer understand.
We may have lost the ability to read a Works file or something like that 10 or 15 years from now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t, if it’s important enough, go back and create it. So, with digital data, you have options more than you have with any other format. That’s why I’m such a proponent of it. It definitely comes with concerns and risks but again because there are so many options available to us when we have our information stored digitally, it’s significantly less of a risk to me anyway, than almost any other alternative.
What do you think? What do you think about digital data, digital archiving, backing up and so forth? Am I completely off the wall here? Is there a flaw in my thinking? I really do, I would love to hear what that might be. As always, here’s a link to this article out on askleo.com.
That’s where the comments are read, moderated. That’s where all the fun stuff happens. I’d encourage you to come out; let me know what you think. Until next time, I’m Leo Notenboom for askleo.com. Take care, have fun, stay safe and don’t forget to back that stuff up. Bye, bye.
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