By BILL VIRGIN
April 4, 2006
You see them sometimes at garage sales or thrift stores, lying
forlornly in a cardboard box, the music of some pop-music star of the
early 1970s locked within their plastic cases, never to be heard --
unless someone can track down an eight-track-tape machine.
Perhaps that same scene will be played out 35 years from now with
boxes of digital cameras going begging because no one has a way of
unlocking the photos embedded on compact flash cards or memory sticks
or whatever the obsolete media storage technology of the era turns out
That the tunes of Three Dog Night or fuzzy photos of a 5-year-old's
birthday party are rendered inaccessible by the march of technology
represents no great societal tragedy or loss to posterity.
But what if the information was something more significant -- such as
government or corporate records, personal financial or health data,
documents of historic significance?
Paper-based records we can preserve and read even if they're centuries
old. Presuming that we handle them carefully and still know how to
read, we'll be able to read them hundreds of years from now. Jerry
Handfield, the state's archivist, recently returned from a trip to
Argentina where he viewed paper records dating from 1500.
What about records that depend on a specific device or piece of
hardware to read them?
"The digital information we create is in danger of disappearing on a
major scale," says a release from the Digital Futures Alliance, a
consortium established last year by University of Washington
"We think about that a lot," says Feliks Banel, deputy director of
Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. Institutions such as MOHAI
not only have to sort and store vast amounts of archival material,
they have to think about how to access the information, even when the
specific technology is no longer in wide use.
"We're getting video formats donated to us that we have to go to a
studio to get transferred," says Banel, who has hunted down such
devices as an eight-track player (located at Goodwill) and a player
for 16-inch transcription discs of recordings of 1940s radio
In some fields of interest, enthusiasts are doing the job of advancing
the material to whatever is the current format. Banel notes that many
"Golden Age" radio shows, having been available on records and then
cassette tapes, are now available in the MP3 format.
But with so much material on formats that have a much shorter
lifespan, there's a danger that material may be lost. Says Banel, "I
don't know anyone who could play floppy disks."
Actually, there is someone who could. The state archivist's office has
been compiling, at its facility in Cheney, a library of hardware,
software and manuals. Handfield says the collection includes such
early-PC-era relics as Commodore 64s, Kaypros and Apple Lisas, all
kept in anticipation of the day, he says, when someone finds an 8-inch
floppy disk (yes, there were such things) "and says, 'What's this?' "
The library also makes sense because Washington has several thousand
governmental units and, as Handfield notes, "There's no mandate they
use the same equipment."
Accessibility is not the only issue with new, old and
soon-to-be-obsolete information-storage formats. There's also an issue
of whether, even if you have the equipment to read it, anything useful
will be left on what you're trying to read. Paper can decay,
photographs fade; digital media can be even less permanent. (CDs, for
example, are considered unstable. "We don't keep CDs as archival
media," Handfield says.)
If the issue isn't yet a big concern for many individuals or
businesses, at least some people are thinking about the problem.
The Digital Futures Alliance includes as charter partners such
heavyweights as Microsoft, Amgen and RealNetworks and has set up
working groups to tackle specific issues including what to keep and
Whatever answers the alliance and others come up with, sooner would be
preferable. If new formats appear as rapidly as they have been, and
obsolete formats prove to be as unstable as forecast, and the flood of
data stored digitally continues unabated -- and all of those are quite
likely -- a lot of people are going to be discovering very soon they
have a problem they didn't expect to have.
And when they make that discovery, they'd probably like some better
method for data retrieval than holding an eight-track tape up to the
ear in hopes of hearing something, or holding a computer floppy up to
a bright light in hopes of reading something on it.
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