NY Times Article on the realities and costs of Born Digital preservation
Mar 16th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Salman Rushdie. Source: Wikipedia. Click on image for link to source.

The New York Times today published an article that reflects some of the challenges of preserving born digital content – that is, documents, data and other content that has been created digitally, on a computer or electronic device, and for which there is no physical original (such as on paper).

In particular, they highlight the efforts of Emory University, in preserving Salman Rushdie’s archival materials.

Among the archival material from Salman Rushdie currently on display at Emory University in Atlanta are inked book covers, handwritten journals and four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke). The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.

But like most Rushdian paradises, this digital idyll has its own set of problems. As research libraries and archives are discovering, “born-digital” materials — those initially created in electronic form — are much more complicated and costly to preserve than anticipated.

Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.

Imagine having a record but no record player.

An interesting aspect of this collection and its exhibition is that it emulates the experience Rushdie had in creating the content.  Rather than just viewing the finished documents, you get to see the computer desktop as he saw it, open up the same applications he used, all in the 1980s and 1990s technological contexts… and not using the modern, Web 2.0, Windows 7 or Mac OS X trappings we’re accustomed to in today’s computers.

I think this article is an excellent read, irrespective of what one’s views may be on the subject matter.  Material of all kinds, in increasing amounts, faces the same perils as this collection every day, and archivists everywhere, including this one, wrestle with how best to retain it all.  So far, the only tried and true method for such types of preservation is to obsessively manage and migrate the content, and that requires making tough decisions as to how to proceed, what formats to migrate to, and hoping the decisions made are the right ones to keep the content viable, at least until the next generation of technology requires that the hard decisions be made again.


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