Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford, has made an impassioned plea to organisations to implement open policies and practices to preserve our digital memory. He argues that the preservation of digital information is a cornerstone of good policy and that organisations also need leadership, resources and collaboration in order to succeed. Many solutions are being developed though open communities, including software, standards and tools, such as JHOVE for validation and format identification. We all need to take action if we want to avoid losing our collective social memory and not fall into a “digital Dark Age” (see also post, "An Information Black Hole?", 14 February 2015).
I was fascinated to read an article in The Times on 7 May that 3-D scanning is being used to produce precise reproductions of cultural objects. Facsimile paintings can be created using the same pigments and canvas as the originals, allowing us to see vivid, unfaded, colours, thus creating the experience intended by the artist and not as we view many artworks today, that have suffered deterioration though age and environment and that have to viewed through glass, in low light, or from some distance away. It also means that artworks can be seen in their original settings. Such a facsimile of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana has been created for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the original commissioner of the work, whilst the original sits in The Louvre in Paris.
Archivists and librarians across the globe are facing a mounting emergency in their efforts to preserve digital data. They are accepting deposits of electronic archives which may already be on the brink of technological obsolescence or, indeed, already have unreadable digital material within their collections, and the problem is growing exponentially. Unlike paper, digital degradation does not follow a steady curve. Even the best IT experts do not know the degradation paths of some formats.
Harvard has adopted a new process to preserve its digital content. Using digital forensics, which was developed to create authentic, unimpeachable data suitable for use as evidence in criminal trials, the archivists retrieve data from obsolete formats using three components: the hardware, the software, and the technician. The first step is imaging which creates a copy of the source medium and replicates the structure and contents independent of the file system. Once the content has been taken from the carrier it can be processed. Then a decision is taken about access, which will be by migration or emulation. Even when the content is retrieved the original media may be retained as advancements are starting to allow the retrieval of content on formats that were previously written off. The archivists are agreed, however, that the problem of obsolescence will not disappear as technology continues to race ahead.
I was interested to hear Jeff James, Chief Executive of The National Archives (TNA) on BBC radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning, responding to Vint Cerf’s comments. Cerf, President of Google, had been speaking at a conference in the USA about the dangers of ‘a hidden century’ in which he highlighted the ever-growing problem of digital preservation. He warned that old computer files could become ‘useless junk’ and even suggested that if we want to preserve our digital photographs we should print them out! The phrase ‘technical obsolescence’ has been around for years with little interest shown by the media except for occasional scare stories. Who remembers the ‘Millennium Bug’?
Now, because of who Cerf is, everyone is starting to take note, which is good. However, what most of the press coverage failed to report was the work that has been going on in this country for many years to try and address this issue, in many cases with limited resources. James was right to flag up the lead that TNA has been taking, producing tools such as PRONOM to map the compatibility of different versions of software. Sterling work is also being done at King’s College and by the Digital Preservation Coalition.
Let’s hear it for some home-grown innovation for once!
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture