Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Even Digital Data Can Fade


There was a thought provoking article in today's New York Times by Katie Hafner, "Even Digital Memories Can Fade." The article begins . . . .
The nation's 115 million home computers are brimming over with personal treasures - millions of photographs, music of every genre, college papers, the great American novel and, of course, mountains of e-mail messages.
My computer is one of those 115 million, and I read Hafner's article in light of my research on Louise Brooks. Keep in mind that at least half of the "data" I have acquired on the actress (everything from rare portraits to bibliographical references, correspondence, webpages, and scans of newspaper and magazine articles) is in a digital format.
I do have a four drawer filing cabinet stuffed full of photocopies of vintage reviews, advertisements of Brooks' films, articles, films scripts, censorship files, and miscellaneous clippings from newspapers and magazines from around the world. I also have three or four boxes full of additional material - vintage magazines, programs, stills and other oversized items. Some of it is incredibly rare. I also have hundreds - if not a thousand - similar items in digital format - word docs, pdf files, html files, txt files, gifs and jpgs. I wonder how long all of this stuff will last. The article went on to state:
So dire and complex is the challenge of digital preservation in general that the Library of Congress has spent the last several years forming committees and issuing reports on the state of the nation's preparedness for digital preservation.
Hafner's article led me to the conclusion that I need to organize and back up everything I've collected and saved, not only in secondary digital files and formats - but to paper, when possible. I used to save things on a zip drive (a once popular storage medium) - until some of the zip discs wore out and I was unable to retrieve data. Now, everything resides on my Windows XP desktop computer.
Today's formats are likely to become obsolete and future software "probably will not recognize some aspects of that format," Mr. Thibodeau said. "It may still be a picture, but there might be things in it where, for instance, the colors are different."
The experts at the National Archives, like those at the Library of Congress, are working to develop uniformity among digital computer files to eliminate dependence on specific hardware or software.
How long will the material I've collected on Louise Brooks last? I don't know. How long will the Louise Brooks Society website - and all of its resulting information - last? I don't know. How long will this LiveJournal blog last? I don't know. Katie Hafner's article offers food for thought.

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