Making data last beyond a lifetime Archive: Changing storage media threaten the preservation of modern knowledge.


WASHINGTON - Imagine that William Shakespeare wrote his sonnets on a word processor and Thomas Jefferson stored early drafts of the Declaration of Independence on floppy disks.

Unless their words were transferred to paper, they would have vanished long ago, experts say, or turned into an unreadable jumble of 0s and 1s - the hieroglyphics of the computer age.

Modern information technology is creating a worrisome problem - how to preserve knowledge for future generations.

As more data are collected in electronic form and circulated on the Internet, the danger grows that vital information will be lost. Some census data, veterans files and toxic-waste records have been lost.

"People don't realize how much of the civilization we live in is created and stored electronically," said Abby Smith, an expert at the Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit organization working on the issue. "The more advanced we are, the more fragile we become."

The problem is likely to get worse. By 2000, 75 percent of federal government records will be in electronic form.

"The potential danger to the world's storehouse of digital information is immense," a policy statement from the library council declares. "It is impossible to attach a dollar figure to the staggering financial consequences of lost or inaccessible data."

The change from ink and paper to electrons and photons is causing "an upheaval at least as great as the introduction of printing, if not of writing itself," declared Jeff Rothenberg, an expert on digital information at RAND, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. "The record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy."

The National Media Laboratory, a research organization in St. Paul, Minn., estimates that data stored on a CD-ROM will be safe for 10 years on average, 50 years if under ideal conditions. Material on magnetic tape lasts an average of five years, 10 years at best, unless it is recopied.

The problem is not just the fragility of computer disks and tapes. Even if they can be preserved, the information they contain may soon be as unintelligible as Egyptian hieroglyphics were before the discovery of the Rosetta stone.

"Software changes all the time, every 18 months," said Kenneth Thibodeau, director of the Center for Electronic Records at the National Archives. "We have to assume that in a relatively short time, none of the software you need is going to work."

Another complication is the rapid turnover in computer hardware. Programs designed for obsolete machines, such as the Commodore or Amiga, can be run with great difficulty, if at all. Material stored on 8-inch floppy disks, popular in the 1980s, is out of reach. The 5-inch and 3-inch floppies are headed for oblivion.

"Digitized information is being recorded on hardware and software that guarantee rapid and inevitable obsolescence," Deanna Marcum, president of the library council, told a congressional committee in March.

Why not just copy everything that should be preserved onto paper? That's not a practical solution, experts say, except for small files. Besides the space they take up, paper records - unlike electronic records - cannot be indexed, sorted, retrieved or organized efficiently.

In addition, knowledge is increasingly being stored as multimedia documents containing sound, pictures and motion, often with electronic links to related documents on the World Wide Web.

"There is no print equivalent of the World Wide Web," said Margaret Hedstrom, an authority on electronic information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Putting it on paper would be a step backward."

As the gravity of the situation sinks in, various solutions are being explored to allow our grandchildren to read what their grandparents have written.

Copying old tapes and disks to "refresh" them is common practice, but doesn't fix the hardware and software problem.

A safer, but costly, technique is to "migrate" the information to new machines, using the latest data storage software, a process that has to be repeated every few years.

Computer programs that mimic outdated systems also can be (( written, so material stored on them can be read.

"I tend to be an optimist," said Thibodeau. "It's a very serious problem, but technology will help us solve it." He noted that President Clinton asked for a 12 percent increase in the Archives budget to work on this issue.

"We must act quickly and decisively if we are to help our descendants read our documents," said Rothenberg, of RAND. "Digital information lasts forever or five years - whichever comes sooner."

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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