Japan’s Crises, and its ramifications on digital preservation
Mar 23rd, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

A Sony HVR-Z1U camera. This device is a digital video workhorse at the SCC, and relies heavily on digital video tape... something which could be rather hard to come by in the near future.

My heart, thoughts, and a donation goes to those affected by the Earthquake, Tsunami, and now radiological crisis that Japan must grapple with.  It’s not exaggeration to say this turn of events is truly unprecedented.  Sitting thousands of miles away, and only observing the events through websites and television screens, I’m aware that I cannot possibly grasp the ordeal that survivors now face.

With that preface, it’s difficult to even think at this point of how the disaster will inconvenience those of us far removed.  However, there will be a rather significant impact for quite some time, given our technological dependencies in a digital world, the number of electronic components and supplies that are produced in Japan, and how we use those components to capture our current history and cultural heritage.

Our first hints of trouble began with an advisory issued to consumers of magnetic tape media. Sony, a major manufacturer of various varieties of tape media as well as semiconductors, optical discs such as DVD and Blu-ray, and electronic components, has been hit hard.  Sony was forced to shut down a number of factories in the region while recovery efforts continue. The earthquake has forced a halt to production in various manufacturing facilities in Japan, including those of magnetic media manufacturers, and suppliers are now warning of an impending shortage and possible price spikes:

“Our industry has already been affected by a halt in media manufacturing operations – professional media supply shortages are evident, namely HDCam SR,” explained a post on the Comtel Pro Media web site. “Worldwide stock shortages present a realistic threat to our industry and the immediate needs of the television and motion picture production.”

Of particular note is a shutdown of the Sony Corporation Sendai Technology Center, currently the only facility in the world producing HDCAM-SR tapes.

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Your tweets, saved for eternity
Apr 14th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

With over 12 billion 140-character messages and growing, Twitter has exploded onto the social networking scene since the first Tweet ever posted roughly fours ago.  Those tiny text-based messages add up: That’s an estimated 1.5 terabaytes of data, and growing!

It looks like the Library of Congress sees the social impact and significance of the medium, and even believes there is a potential academic treasure trove waiting to be unearthed within this mass of single-sentence missives.  And so, the LoC has announced – via Twitter, of course – that it has acquired the entire Twitter archive.

That’s right. Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress.

So if you think the Library of Congress is “just books,” think of this: The Library has been collecting materials from the web since it began harvesting congressional and presidential campaign websites in 2000. Today we hold more than 167 terabytes of web-based information, including legal blogs, websites of candidates for national office, and websites of Members of Congress.

Twitter also made its own announcement via its blog:

It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research. It’s very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history. It should be noted that there are some specifics regarding this arrangement. Only after a six-month delay can the Tweets will be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.

The specific details of the arrangement are still a bit sketchy, and I do have some questions about how this will play out.  For instance, there’s not much direct mention of whether this archive will include the numerous photos and videos that are frequently linked to users’ tweets, but are often hosted via third party add-on sites such as TwitPic and Posterous.  A lot of Twitter users tend to use the platform as a springboard towards linking to websites and other external content, the permancnce of which can be pretty dubious.

This is still a very promising start though, and hopefully the archived twittersphere will in fact prove useful to researchers in the future.

Some may question the importance or singificane of this decision.  But Twitter isn’t just mindless banter. The LoC lists a few socially significant tweets in the archive.  Among them, the first “Victory tweet” by a president-elect.  There’s also quite a bit of historical influence that was set in motion by Twitter: political prisoners in the Middle East have used it to get their message across to followers; sometimes it was the very medium that got them into trouble, and other times it spread the word that helped set them free. Politicians in the West from all ends of the political spectrum have and continue to use Twitter to marshall their troops, as it were.  And the media have documented cases where Twitter became the source of social change in countries ruled with an iron hand, so much so that the potential outage of the service due to maintenance was once considered a serious threat to activism.  There’s PLENTY of social significance there.

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.

Reel2Bytes: Digitizing 1950s-era analog tape
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Of all the work I do, I think dealing with older formats, and just figuring out how they work, is the most interesting aspect.

A few weeks ago, a stack of old open real tapes arrived, along with a similar-vintage tape player.  The recordings were done in the early 1950s, as part of a project to record the oral histories of various labor officials who were active in the early 20th century.  The recordings made it unequivocally clear that the intent was to allow students and researchers from decades into the future to get insight on the history of the labor movement in the state.

Well, for quite a few years, these tapes remained shelved and seldom accessed, until a faculty member from the School of Management and Labor Relations learned of their existence and wanted to use them in his courses.  Owing to the age of the recording format, the scarcity of playback equipment, and the condition of the tapes, there is no way that multiple students would practically access the tapes and have them survive.  But, that doesn’t mean the content should stay inaccessible.

And so, after getting a demonstration from out Special Collections staff on the best way to handle the tapes, and after mustering the courage to risk handling them, the player was hooked up to more modern digital recording equipment, and the digitization had begun:

I’ve always heard people talk about what wonderful sound fidelity the old open reel tape formats had, and they’re right; the sound quality is great, particularly for 55+ year old recordings. The physical condition of the tapes left much to be desired though: one reel had a paper backing, and was extremely fragile. Just playing it back was a white-knuckle experience. It’s a shame too, because one thing you do miss in the migration of old content to digital formats is the experience of handling these old things, and getting them working again. The operation of the tape deck; threading the tape, feeling the very mechanical-ness of the format and how it worked… these are things that modern digital formats have yet been unable to duplicate or preserve.

Additional photos of the setup and the reels themselves appear below the cut.
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New Scientist article on “Digital Doomsday”
Feb 3rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

One of the topics I like to bring up in the discussion of preserving digital data is the idea of a Digital Dark Age… the notion of a period in our historic knowledge that ends up getting lost due to a failure to plan and preserve our early digital content.

The New Scientist, however, recently published an article (Feb 2, 2010) on something a bit more cataclismic: the concept of  Digital Doomsday.  From the article:

Suppose, for instance, that the global financial system collapses, or a new virus kills most of the world’s population, or a solar storm destroys the power grid in North America. Or suppose there is a slow decline as soaring energy costs and worsening environmental disasters take their toll. The increasing complexity and interdependency of society is making civilisation ever morevulnerable to such events (New Scientist, 5 April 2008, p 28 and p 32).

Whatever the cause, if the power was cut off to the banks of computers that now store much of humanity’s knowledge, and people stopped looking after them and the buildings housing them, and factories ceased to churn out new chips and drives, how long would all our knowledge survive? How much would the survivors of such a disaster be able to retrieve decades or centuries hence?

The article is a compelling read, and offers an intellectual exercise on how much of our “stuff” will survive such a castastrophe.  Ironically, the logic is that the digital content with the most copies oin existence may win out.  So, while scholarly works, theses, research and other important scientific data would be at risk, pop music may surive just fine.

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