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"Digital Dark Age"

On Wed, 10 Feb 1999 Peter Veryheyen wrote:

"So, the moral? Always save to the lowest common format, migrate/convert to
a new format when it is established, preferably as a standard though even
those change. Repeat often."

This whole thing has been rather topical for me.  I have sitting on my
bench at work six Sumerian clay tablets to be housed, each about 4000 years
old.  They are all just as easy to read to today as they were in 2000 B.C.
So, at what point do we reach the lowest common format?  Most modern day
papers will crumble in the next few decades.  Microfilm won't probably last
a century.  Magenetic media doesn't even reliably last 10 years.  Got a CD
with a scratch in it?  All that's good for is hanging on your rear-view
mirror.  Also, who is going to reformat all that information?  And keeping
up with the new technology and reformatting onto that, well, who's going to
do that as well?  And pay for it all?  It seems to me that the only things
that have truely stood the test of time are those six little rocks with
indentions.  Minor crumbling (if fired properly), a crack won't make a
difference in readability, no degradation concerns, and the readers will
always be around as long as the tablets.

Besides, to me the question isn't whether CD-ROM is the way to go, as DT
Fletcher suggests, but rather, what do we do with all that data that's
stored on magnetic tapes that hasn't been transferred.  There is a whole
lot of it, and the readers for it are hard to come by, if at all.  The cost
and time to transfer them even to CD is considerable.

It seems to me, and this may bother a lot of librarians and
preservationists out there, that at some point, we are going to have to
give up on keeping so much information, and concentrate on just some of it.
We're awash in paper, floppies, tapes, and CD's, so much so that only a
small part of it will realistically ever be reformatted.  Also, at some
point, and probably soon, it is going to have to be decided what the
"preservation format" will be, and we will have to stick with it and keep
it alive.  DT Fletcher may be right, CD-ROM may live on actively for
decades, but mankind will make up much longer than that.  Reformatting even
every 30 years is too much to ask for.  We need to decide what it will be,
and not let it become obsolete, even if something just a little better
comes along.

The funniest thing is that the "I [heart] book arts" coffee mug that you
drink out of every day, made much in the same manner as the Sumerian clay
tablets, will probably last the next 4000 years, but whatever we choose to
format all that information onto won't.

Alan Van Dyke

Alan P. Van Dyke         alan@mail.utexas.edu
Conservation Liaison            512-232-4620
Department of Manuscripts and Archives
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
The University of Texas at Austin
P.O. Drawer 7219                     "Hulk smash."
Austin, TX 78713-7219               --The Hulk

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