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History: We're Losing It

They told us digital data would last forever. They lied.
How do we save the past before it all disappears?

By: Arlyn Tobias Gajilan
July 12, 1999 ‑ Newsweek

First‑time parents Michele and Steve Brigham of New York can’t imagine life without their 6‑year‑old daughter, Courtney‑or the family camcorder and camera. Like millions of other parents, the Brighams have video‑taped and photographed their daughter's first breaths, first steps, first birthday and dozens of other events in a rapidly growing library of more than 1,800 minutes of videotape and 3,000 photographs. "It may seem excessive," admits Michele. "But I think Courtney will appreciate it all when she grows up." Unfortunately, she might have nothing to look at. By the time Courtney turns 30, sunlight may have faded most of her color childhood photos, and in the off chance that the tiny VHS‑C videotapes featuring her many firsts survive decades of heart and humidity, there probably won’t be a machine to play them back on.

Home videos and snapshots aren't all that are at risk. Librarians and archivists warn we're losing vast amounts of important scientific and historical material because of disintegration or obsolescence. Already gone is up to 20 percent of the data collected on Jet Propulsion Laboratory computers during NASA's 1976 Viking missions to Mars. Also at risk are 4,000 reels of census data stored in a format so obscure that archivists doubt they'll be able to recover it. By next year, 75 percent of federal government records will be in electronic form, and no one is sure how much of it will be readable in as little as 10 years. "The more technologically advanced we get, the more fragile we become," says Abby Smith of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

For years, computer scientists said the ones and zeros of digital data would stick around forever. They were wrong. Tests by the National Media Lab, a Minnesota‑based government and industry consortium, found that magnetic tapes might last only a decade, depending on storage conditions. The fate of floppy disks, videotape and hard drives is just as bleak. Even the CD‑ROM, once touted as indestructible, is proving vulnerable to stray magnetic fields, oxidation, humidity and material decay. The fragility of electronic media isn't the only problem. Much of the hardware and software configurations needed to tease intelligible information from preserved disks and tapes are disappearing in the name of progress. "Technology is moving too quickly," says Charlie Mayn, who runs the Special Media Preservation lab at the National Archives.

He speaks from experience. In the 1980s, the Archives transferred some 200,000 documents and images onto optical disks, which are in danger of becoming indecipherable because the system archivists used is no longer on the market. "Any technology can go the way of eight‑tract and Betamax‑ says Smith, whose own dissertation is trapped on an obsolete 5 1/4" floppy. "Information doesn't have much of a chance, unless you keep a museum of tape players and PCs around." That may not be such a farfetched idea. Mayn's temperature‑controlled lab in the bowels of the National Archives houses many machines once used to record history. In one room, archivists are resurrecting the 1948 whistle‑stop oratory of President Harry Truman; the give 'em‑hell speeches were recorded on spools of thin still wire, an ancestor of reel‑to‑reel tape recordings. Though some of the wires have rusted and snap during playbacks, Mayn and his team are busy "migrating", or transferring, what they're able to recover onto more stable modern media.

Unfortunately, migration isn't a perfect solution. "Sometimes not all the data makes the trip," says Smith. Recently the Food and Drug Administration said that some pharmaceutical companies were finding errors as they transferred drug‑testing data from Unix to Windows NT operating systems. In some instances, the errors resulted in blood-pressure numbers that were randomly off by up to eight digits.

So what's to be done? "That's a question no one really has an answer for," says Smith. A good way to start is to separate the inconsequential from the historic, and save on simple formats. Making those decisions won't be easy, especially for families like the Brighams, who continue to roll video on their young daughter. "We don’t want to miss anything," says Michele. Unfortunately, they may have to.

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