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Time and Technology

This week's Science section of the New York Times had a fascinating full-page
article by Stephen Manes on the threats to information stored in digital form.
The bulk of the report, entitled "Time and Technology Threaten Digital
Archives...", stated that electronic information is in peril because the means
of recording it, particularly if it is magnetic media, deteriorates over time.
Even optical media like CD-ROM, the article reports, is not permanent.  The
other threat to digital archives comes from fast-changing technology that
quickly replaces, and often dooms, the means of accessing the information.

The second part of the report, "But With Luck and Diligence, Treasure-Troves
of Data Can Be Preserved", acknowledged sometime that many of us have long
believed: the best way to preserve information is still permanent ink on acid-
free paper.  According to the article, "There is one common medium, however,
that is likely to survive even longer: ink on acid-free paper.  Despite the
relative bulk of storing words and images on paper, this method has several
advantages, including, of course, the ability to be understood many years from
now without software and hardware that may have disappeared long before.
Stored properly, paper tends to degrade slowly and gracefully; even if it
crumbles, you may be able to piece things together long enough to make a copy.

"Still, paper will not stand in for all things digital, particularly those
involving hypertext and multimedia, and it is less than ideal for keeping
images.  If your only surviving copy is in paper form, you may have to go
through the travails of re-digitizing it someday.  But that is better than not
being able to read it at all.  One option is to store both digital and paper
versions; the paper may help some future archeologist reconstruct the work in
its digital form."

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