Taking Bytes from Oblivion
Can we turn fragile digital information into an enduring record?
The most familiar things can quickly slip into obscurity. Consider a style of armchair you have probably seen a dozen times. It has four sturdy legs connected by stretchers (horizontal wooden rods), a seat of contoured wood or occasionally cane, a bentwood rail extending around the sitter's back, and a short backrest with a cut-out handle. The Douglass chair, as it is often called, was ubiquitous in late-19th-century America. It withstood the tilting and and brawling of frontier saloongoers. It was fastened to the floor of railroad cabooses. It was equipped with springs and long levers as a ludicrous exercise device called the Health Jolting Chair. Yet it was elegant enough for Yale University to include an image of one in a catalog of its historic furniture.
You might expect at least one furniture maker or its heirs would happily claim invention of such an American icon. But the opposite is true. Almost nothing of its history has survived. Old furniture catalogs, preserved in a handful of museums and libraries, use the name without a clue about who Douglass really was--and some spell the name with a single s.
Today's businesses, government agencies, and academic institutions can learn a lot from the fate of this rugged seating. Even documents printed in hundreds of thousands of copies, like the mail-order catalogs of a hundred years ago, were used so heavily and discarded so often that they are surprisingly rare. The digital revolution has multiplied the volume of information and yet made it more ephemeral. Details about our own lives and work as intriguing as the Douglass chair's pedigree could easily be lost if fragile chains of digital data are broken--which raises questions about how much of the data filling hard drives today should be kept and how to safeguard it. Congress, for one, considered these issues urgent enough to appropriate $100 million in late 2000 to the Library of Congress to develop a national program of digital data archiving.
Electronic technology has multiplied rather than solved the dilemmas of preservation. Paper made from wood pulp can grow brittle and flaky in 50 years, but a floppy disk can start to lose data in 10 years or less. Optical disks may last a century with ideal manufacture and storage conditions, but otherwise may "delaminate" in a generation.
Even before a medium decays, its message may be lost if no reading devices are available. Data restoration companies maintain arsenals of vintage machines like 8-inch floppy disk drives to extract information. Beta videotape is still available to the thousands of remaining enthusiasts. And there is even a surprisingly vigorous industry producing and processing IBM-style paper punch cards. But some formats truly die. Already thousands of Landsat tapes of Earth from the 1970s have effectively been lost because no more drives exist, although an emergency program of the U.S. Geological Survey has fortunately recovered data invaluable to environmental scientists. Recording-company vaults still house priceless master disks, but one industry expert recently told me that there is only a single craftsman left who can make high-quality needles for transcribing them.