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"Before you know it as the years go by, you're just like other people you have seen, with all those peculiar human ailments. Just another vehicle for temper and vanity and rashness and all the rest. Who wants it? Who needs it? These things occupy the place where a man's soul should be." -- Henderson the Rain King

Monday, January 17, 2005

Digital Archiving

About a year ago I read Double Fold by Nicholson Baker. In the book, he talks about how libraries (unnecessarily in some cases) rushed to preserve old newspapers and books by scanning them and transferring them to technologies such as microfiche (which was considered to be cutting edge at the time). Once the scanned versions of the data were made available, many libraries chose to discard their original material since they now had easy access to the data in a format that was easier for them to store and maintain. Unfortunately, as time has gone by technologies such as microfiche have become obsolete. Libraries now find themselves in a seemingly endless cycle of transferring their digitized material from one format to another. In many cases these transfers result in data loss which can lead to content being corrupted or in the worst case scenarios lost altogether.

As I've started to blog, I've been thinking a lot about this book and how it applies to information on the internet. For instance, the links in this blog provide a valuable source of information that in many cases are critical to the meaning of the posts themselves. How many of these links will still be active 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now? Will this blog even be available in any form?

As the internet continues to grow into our information center, how do we ensure that the content it contains is perserved in any meaningful way? The good news is that there are people out there thinking about these kinds of problems. The Internet Archive and UC Berkeley's Digital Library Project are a couple of examples of organizations dedicated to thinking through these tough problems and working towards putting the pieces in place to build a top-notch Internet Library.

I expect we'll see similar archival problems as the file formats we use for our music and images changes. The MP3s and JPGs of today will eventually be replaced with new file types that are technically superior. As they're replaced the support for the old file types will eventually wither away. Will all of the music and image content we have today convert to the new formats successfully? Will we lose some of our music and image files in the process? It's pretty scary to think of all of those family photos that could easily be lost one day due to software compatibility bugs.

If you're interested in these kinds of topics, another interesting book to check out is Why Things Bite Back by Edward Tenner. In it he talks about some of the unexpected consequences we've run into as a result of our technology "advances". For instance the fact that the wide spread use of antibiotics, has resulted in strains of bacteria and viruses that have developed immunity to today's treatments. The book is a good reminder that despite what we may think, we don't always know what the full effect of our technology advances will be.