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Preservation

*Update October 21,2005: James R. Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo, and Danial Cornwall were invited to speak at the Nevada Library Association Annual Conference. Here’s Daniel’s panel presentation about preservation and government information.


Preserving government information is key to our survival as a nation. If we don’t remember what we’ve done and why we’ve done it, repeating history may be the least of our worries.

In the analog world, preservation is a relative simple matter of caring for a physical object. Millions of people can visit the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because the National Archives has taken care of the paper these documents are written on. Since the words of these important documents are human readable, no machinery is needed to make the words understandable. Given the proper conditions, citizens celebrating our nation’s 500th anniversary in 2276 will be able to read these core documents of history.

By contrast, digital publications and data are fragile. The main enemies of the successful preservation of digital materials are the media and the file format the data is in.

Currently there are two types of media for storing digital data – magnetic and optical. Magnetic encompasses audio and video tapes, floppy drives, removable hard drives, flash drives and magnetic tape. Optical media includes the various flavors of CDs and DVDs. Magnetic media has a proven poor track record as a durable storage format. Most magnetic media may last from 10-20 years. If material isn’t copied onto new magnetic media, it can be lost. Optical media fares better in terms of holding data without decay. The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that CD-R’s and DVD-Rs may last several tens of years. Some people estimate the lifetime of the highest quality of optical media to be close to a century. Still, this is only a fraction of the lifetime of quality paper or the estimated lifetime of microfilm.

However, length of media is really the least of our worries. A much greater problem is technological obsolescence. Have you tried to read a 5 1/4″ disk or pull up a Wordstar document lately? There are many examples of lost data because no equipment or software exists to read it. Data could be lost to technological obsolescence within ten years if it’s not migrated into new formats.

So, how can we preserve digital information? Currently, no one knows how to best preserve digital information in a digital format, though there are some promising approaches. So far the safest approach is the “analog backup”; otherwise known as making tangible copies.

There are several groups studying the preservation of digital government information, including the Government Printing Office, the National Archives, the ALA Government Documents Roundtable and the LOCKSS group at Stanford University.



For further exploration try…

Web resources

Articles

  • Carlson, Scott. The Uncertain Fate of Scholarly Artifacts in a Digital Age. Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/30/2004, Vol. 50 Issue 21, pA25, 3p.
  • Hutt, Arwen. Protecting Your Library’s Digital Resources: The Essential Guide to Planning and Preservation. Library Resources & Technical Services, Jan2005, Vol. 49 Issue 1, p58, 2p;
  • Jacobs, James A; Jacobs, James R. and Yeo, Shinjoung Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. Journal of Academic Librarianship. May 2005. Available on the Internet at http://ssdc.ucsd.edu/jj/fdlp/.

Books

  • General Accounting Office. (2002). Information Management: Challenges in Managing and Preserving Electronic Records’ . Washington DC: General Accounting Office.
  • Hunter, Gregory S. (2000) Preserving digital information:a how-to-do-it manual New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
  • Lazinger, Susan S.and Tibbo, Helen R. (2001) Digital preservation and metadata :history, theory, practice. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Please post suggestions for this bibliography in the comments section.

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