The Fading Memory of the State is a Technology Review article talking about the immediate and massive problems that the National Archives and Records Administration is having in preserving electronic records.
This article contains several practical examples of what happens when electronic data is lost. One instance led to the failure to tell the story of the 1989 Panama Invasion, where 23 US soldiers lost their lives:
NARA’s crash data-preservation project is coming none too soon; today’s history is born digital and dies young. Many observers have noted this, but perhaps none more eloquently than a U.S. Air Force historian named Eduard Mark. In a 2003 posting to a Michigan State University discussion group frequented by fellow historians, he wrote: “It will be impossible to write the history of recent diplomatic and military history as we have written about World War II and the early Cold War. Too many records are gone. Think of Villon’s haunting refrain, ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ and weep….History as we have known it is dying, and with it the public accountability of government and rational public administration.” Take the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, in which U.S. forces removed Manuel Noriega and 23 troops lost their lives, along with at least 200 Panamanian fighters and 300 civilians. Mark wrote (and recently stood by his comments) that he could not secure many basic records of the invasion, because a number were electronic and had not been kept. “The federal system for maintaining records has in many agencies–indeed in every agency with which I am familiar–collapsed utterly,” Mark wrote.
A 2003 article detailed Mark’s search for the Panama records.
Yet another reason why we need as many copies of as many items in as many places as possible!
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