The Archive Vanishes

No news to anybody in the archives and records world, or researchers who work with public documents or manuscripts for that matter, but huge amounts of the original written legacy of the last 30 years is falling into the digital abyss as formats become obsolete, hardware is hard to find/non-functional, and magnetic storage media itself crumbles into dust.

But maybe there’s hope: A paper in Nature reports on a novel approach to saving the archives, applying techniques from digital forensics. Stanford’s efforts to save the Stephen Jay Gould Papers from oblivion gives an example of the impetus.

The Gould papers were an early indication of an issue that’s been rapidly worsening: four decades after the personal-computer revolution brought word processing and number crunching to the desktop, the first generation of early adopters is retiring or dying. So how do archivists recover and preserve what’s left behind?

From, “Digital forensics: from the crime lab to the library” by Mark Woverton.

The approach is to fit out archivists with the skills of a crime investigator (who will star in the spinoff “CSI: The Manuscript Division,” I wonder?).

The list of dead or dying media that a UNC prof mentions– floppies, Zip disks, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, hard drives–reads like my career. I’m sure that any digital traces of a monthly opera newsletter I contributed to and later edited for years was delivered to the printer and archived on SyQuest discs, a medium and a company both long gone. So is PageMaker, the program we designed it on. The newsletter was no great shakes, but probably somebody put stuff on SyQuest worth saving, be it a data set that has otherwise impossible to recreate info, a great novel or an archive of legal docs.

Sappho
Fragments of Sappho’s poetry. (By Masur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Seems like UNC is on the job, with a tool called BitCurator, so maybe future generations won’t have to depend on the digital equivalent of somebody using a scrap of Sappho’s poetry as a wine stopper to rescue a legacy. (I know that story may be only a romantic legend, but it’s still evocative.)

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