Friday, February 3, 2012

Will future historians face a Digital Dark Age?

Lack of historical evidence has always been one of the greatest frustrations facing historians. Skills such as reading and writing were long the preserve of a privileged few – resulting in a historical record that often reflects the voices of those in power and obscures the lives of ordinary men and women.

All of which makes the recent creation of the largest and most democratic archive of information that humanity has ever seen pretty darn exciting. Behold – the internet!

Yet, despite promising a tantalising treasure trove for future historians our digital heritage is in danger of being destroyed. Digital preservation is not just an issue for historians, it is important for everyone wishing to preserve precious memories for future generations - photos, video or correspondence - in our digital world.

Here are five things you need to know.

1. Much of our cultural record is now ‘born digital’.

Records that are ‘born digital’ include websites, correspondence (such as email), digital photos, digital music files and ebooks. Unlike paper records or film negatives, this information is often stored solely in digital archives. We must find ways to store this data or risk losing it.

2. Digital data is extremely challenging to store for long periods of time .

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the technologies for storing digital data are prone to decay. There is no way to tell exactly how long a burnt DVD, CD or external hard drive will last but the amount of time is likely to be shorter than you think – estimates vary from 2-5 years. Secondly, even if data is preserved perfectly, data will be lost if the technology that gives us the ability read it becomes obsolete. The U.S. Government found this out the hard way in the late 1970’s when they tried to access data from their 1960 census. By this time there were only two machines left in the world that could read the data (one was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian Institution). Finally, the amount of data in humanity's digital archive is increasing exponentially. Researchers from University of Southern California have estimated that the volume of digital records overtook analogue records in 2002 and by 2007 (five short years!) over 90% of memory was in digital form.

3. These challenges mean that digital archives need careful management.

Unlike paper records, which often survive despite being abandoned for centuries, digital records will disappear quickly if forgotten. While your grandparents may have tucked away their old photos and papers in a shoebox for decades, digital data does not offer this luxury. The emerging field of digital archaeology is manned by specialists whose task it is to retrieve information and record these technologies.

4. There is only one known way to preserve your digital data.

Keep it moving! Think of your digital archive as a river of data. To keep it flowing you need to regularly move digital photos and documents into new formats. Here are some tips for preserving your digital memories:
  • Recognise that you need to actively manage your own digital archive.
  • Back everything up. Files should exist in at least two difference places in case one format fails or corrupts.
  • Keep external hard drives in a dry, cool , safe place, eject them from your computer properly and for goodness sake, don’t drop them!
  • Shift data onto a new formats every 2-5 years
  • And my best tip? Print out your photos and put them in albums. Retro, right? Printing your photos is inexpensive and a physical photo is still far more likely to be around in 50 years than one saved on a hard drive. Those emails you sent your family while you were on that backpacking trip in Europe? Print those too.

5. Digital archives will transform the way historians work in the future.

While digital archives (including social media such as Twitter and Facebook) are likely to offer future historians rich insights into the lives of a diverse range of people – they will also require the development of new tools to find meaning in an ocean of data. Storage of this data will require both time and money. Who will choose what records survive and which do not? It just may be that we see a kind of digital Darwinism come into action.

Or perhaps, in some cases, even a return to analog technology? The Rosetta Stone is wonderful example of the beauty of simplicity. The stone tablet, created over 2,000 years ago, was rediscovered in Egypt in 1799. It contains a single decree inscribed three times – in Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic. It was the hieroglyphic text that caused a sensation. Hieroglyphs were rarely used after the fourth century AD and the knowledge of how to read them had been lost. This single stone unlocked much of the world of ancient Egypt. When I was living in London, sometimes I would call into the British Museum just to see it.

Inspired by this simplicity, The Rosetta project is a contemporary effort to preserve the world’s many written languages. Academics have created a metal disk engraved with records of over 1,500 languages. The cover of the disc contains the following message for the reader;“Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”. Like the Rosetta Stone, it is hoped the tablet will survive for over 2,000 years.

The Rosetta Stone - Image courtesy of the British Museum.

The Rosetta Disc - Image courtesy of the Rosetta Project.


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  2. Fantastic link - many thanks for sharing!