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.

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.

Retrocomputing: Remembering technologies past
Sep 17th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Even as technology marches on, there is a slowly growing enthusiasm for looking back on the history of computing, and preserving those still-working specimens of obsolete systems and vintage hardware and software that exist. The movement is known as retrocomputing, and although it’s mostly done as a hobby, I would argue that the people who collect and preserve these older specimens are doing a bit of digital curation in their own right.

It’s one thing to read about older computers in the mid to late 20th century that shaped technology as it stands today. But looking up articles on PDP minicomputersApple IIs, TRS-80s, Commodore 64s and the like from your modern LCD desktop or iPhone just isn’t the same as actually getting to sit in front of one of these Old Greats and using them. And so, every so often, some of these retrocomputing enthusiasts get together and allow the interested public to do just that.

Recently the East Coast Vintage Computer Festival rolled into Wall Tonwship, NJ, and packed the InfoAge Science Center’s exhibit hall wall to wall with computer systems from decades past… most working well, some not so much. Even some of the much older minicomputers on display worked well for a while, until the systems consumed way too much power and blew the science center’s fuses, rendering them inoperable. But of the many old historic systems that did work, visitors could sit down and give them a spin. It was fascinating to be able make an IMSAI 8080 talk just like it did when fictional teenage hacker David Lightman used it to access military computers in the movie Wargames. Playing old cartridge games on a genuine Atari 800 was pretty neat as well. And although my BASIC programming was a little rusty, the old fascination I felt the first time I wrote a program in second grade came back, as I did it all over again.

Operating old computers can be quite a loud affair, as you’ll see in this video. Here, David Gesswein demonstrates a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, connected – as a PDP-8 likely would have been in the mid-1960s – to an electromechanical ASR-33 Teletype machine. If you think CRT monitors are old-school, consider that this type of setup had no graphics at all. You had just the equivalent of an electric typewriter, a bank of switches and indicator lights, and some reel-to-reel tape machines to interact with. My, how we’re spoiled today…

Unfortunately, the clatter of Teletype and and the din of many excited geeks talking loudly drowns out the audio, but if you want to know more about the PDP-8, David Gesswein has his own website explaining its intricacies, and even lets you interact with a working PDP-8 online.

A wide assortment of photos taken at the festival appear after the jump link below. Enjoy!

Image Gallery: Vintage Computing Festival East 6.0

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