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Fw: NYTimes.com Article: Even Digital Memories Can Fade

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  • Lynn Taylor
    . . . decided to share this Times article covering digitizing/saving - since these are such current topics for many of us Lynn Taylor Sent: Wednesday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 13, 2004
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      . . . decided  to share this Times article covering digitizing/saving -
             since these are such current topics for many of us 
                     Lynn Taylor 
       
      Sent: Wednesday, November 10, 2004 12:34 PM
      Subject: NYTimes.com Article: Even Digital Memories Can Fade

      > By KATIE HAFNER 
      >
      > The nation's 115 million home computers are
      brimming over
      > with personal treasures - millions of photographs, music
      of
      > every genre, college papers, the great American novel and,
      > of
      course, mountains of e-mail messages.
      >
      > Yet no one has figured
      out how to preserve these electronic
      > materials for the next decade, much
      less for the ages. Like
      > junk e-mail, the problem of digital archiving,
      which seems
      > straightforward, confounds even the experts.
      >
      > "To save a digital file for, let's say, a hundred years is
      >
      going to take a lot of work," said Peter Hite, president of
      > Media
      Management Services, a consulting firm in Houston.
      > "Whereas to take a
      traditional photograph and just put it
      > in a shoe box doesn't take any
      work." Already, half of all
      > photographs are taken by digital cameras,
      with most of the
      > shots never leaving a personal computer's hard drive.
      >
      > So dire and complex is the challenge of digital
      >
      preservation in general that the Library of Congress has
      > spent the last
      several years forming committees and issuing
      > reports on the state of the
      nation's preparedness for
      > digital preservation.
      >
      > Jim
      Gallagher, director for information technology services
      > at the Library
      of Congress, said the library, faced with "a
      > deluge of digital
      information," had embarked on a
      > multiyear, multimillion-dollar project,
      with an eye toward
      > creating uniform standards for preserving digital
      material
      > so that it can be read in the future regardless of the
      >
      hardware or software being used. The assumption is that
      > machines and
      software formats in use now will become
      > obsolete sooner rather than
      later.
      >
      > "It is a global problem for the biggest governments and
      the
      > biggest corporations all the way down to individuals," said
      >
      Ken Thibodeau, director for the electronic records archives
      > program at
      the National Archives and Records
      > Administration.
      >
      > In
      the meantime, individual PC owners struggle in private.
      > Desk drawers and
      den closets are filled with obsolete
      > computers, stacks of Zip disks and
      3½-inch diskettes, even
      > the larger 5&#188-inch floppy disks from the
      1980's. Short
      > of a clear solution, experts recommend that people
      copy
      > their materials, which were once on vinyl, film and paper,
      >
      to CD's and other backup formats.
      >
      > But backup mechanisms can
      also lose their integrity.
      > Magnetic tape, CD's and hard drives are far
      from robust.
      > The life span of data on a CD recorded with a CD
      burner,
      > for instance, could be as little as five years if it is
      >
      exposed to extremes in humidity or temperature.
      >
      > And if a CD is
      scratched, Mr. Hite said, it can become
      > unusable. Unlike, say, faded but
      readable ink on paper, the
      > instant a digital file becomes corrupted, or
      starts to
      > degrade, it is indecipherable.
      >
      > "We're
      accumulating digital information faster than we can
      > handle, and moving
      into new platforms faster than we can
      > handle," said Jeffrey Rutenbeck,
      director for the Media
      > Studies Program at the University of Denver.
      >
      > Professional archivists and librarians have the
      resources
      > to duplicate materials in other formats and the
      expertise
      > to retrieve materials trapped in obsolete computers.
      But
      > consumers are seldom so well equipped. So they are forced
      > to
      devise their own stop-gap measures, most of them
      > unwieldy, inconvenient
      and decidedly low-tech.
      >
      > Philip Cohen, the communications
      officer at a nonprofit
      > foundation in San Francisco, is what archivists
      call a
      > classic "migrator." Since he was in elementary school,
      Mr.
      > Cohen, 33, has been using a computer for his school work,
      >
      and nearly all of his correspondence has been in e-mail
      > since college.
      >
      > Now Mr. Cohen's three home computers are filled with
      tens
      > of thousands of photos, songs, video clips and
      >
      correspondence.
      >
      > Over the years, Mr. Cohen, who moonlights as a
      computer
      > fix-it man, has continually transferred important files
      to
      > ever newer computers and storage formats like CD's and
      > DVD's.
      "I'll just keep moving forward with the stuff I'm
      > sentimental about," he
      said.
      >
      > Yet Mr. Cohen said he had noticed that some of his
      CD's,
      > especially the rewritable variety, are already beginning
      to
      > degrade. "About a year and a half ago they started to
      >
      deteriorate, and become unreadable," he said.
      >
      > And of course,
      migration works only if the data can be
      > found, and with ever more
      capacious hard drives, even that
      > can be a problem.
      >
      >
      "Some people are saying digital data will disappear not by
      > being
      destroyed but by being lost," Dr. Rutenbeck said.
      > "It's one thing to
      find the photo album of your trip to
      > Hawaii 20 years ago. But what if
      those photos are all
      > sitting in a subdirectory in your computer?"
      >
      > For some PC users, old machines have become the
      equivalent
      > of the bin under the bed. This solution, which experts
      call
      > the museum approach to archiving, means keeping obsolete
      >
      equipment around the house.
      >
      > Simon Yates, an analyst at
      Forrester Research, for example,
      > keeps his old PC in the back of a
      closet underneath a box.
      > The machine contains everything in his life
      from the day he
      > married in 1997 to the day he bought his new computer
      in
      > 2002. If he wanted to retrieve anything from the old PC,
      > Mr.
      Yates said, it would require a great deal of wiring and
      > rewiring. "I'd
      have to reconfigure my entire office just to
      > get it to boot up," he
      said.
      >
      > Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business
      Network,
      > which specializes in long-range planning, says that a
      >
      decade or two from now, the museum approach might be the
      > most feasible
      answer.
      >
      > "As long as you keep your data files somewhat
      readable
      > you'll be able to go to the equivalent of Kinko's where
      >
      they'll have every ancient computer available," said Mr.
      > Schwartz, whose
      company has worked with the Library of
      > Congress on its preservation
      efforts.
      >
      > "It'll be like Ye Olde Antique Computer Shoppe,"
      Mr.
      > Schwartz said. "There's going to be a whole industry of
      >
      people who will have shops of old machines, like the
      > original Mac Plus."
      >
      > Until that approach becomes commercially viable,
      though,
      > there is the printout method.
      >
      > Melanie Ho, 25,
      a graduate student at the University of
      > California, Los Angeles, has
      been using computers since
      > elementary school. She creates her own Web
      sites and she
      > spends much of her day online.
      >
      > Yet she
      prints important documents and stores a backup set
      > at her parents' house
      100 miles away.
      >
      > "As much as a lot of people think print will
      be dead
      > because of computers," she said, "I actually think
      there's
      > something about the tangibility of paper that feels more
      >
      comforting."
      >
      > Proponents of paper archiving grow especially
      vocal when it
      > comes to preserving photographs. If stored
      properly,
      > conventional color photographs printed from negatives
      can
      > last as long as 75 years without fading. Newer photographic
      >
      papers can last up to 200 years.
      >
      > There is no such certainty
      for digital photos saved on a
      > hard drive.
      >
      > Today's
      formats are likely to become obsolete and future
      > software "probably will
      not recognize some aspects of that
      > format," Mr. Thibodeau said. "It may
      still be a picture,
      > but there might be things in it where, for instance,
      the
      > colors are different."
      >
      > The experts at the National
      Archives, like those at the
      > Library of Congress, are working to develop
      uniformity
      > among digital computer files to eliminate dependence
      on
      > specific hardware or software.
      >
      > One format that has
      uniformity, Mr. Thibodeau pointed out,
      > is the Web, where it often makes
      no difference which
      > browser is being used.
      >
      > Indeed, for
      many consumers, the Web has become a popular
      > archiving method,
      especially when it comes to photos.
      > Shutterfly.com and Ofoto .com have
      hundreds of millions of
      > photographs on their computers. Shutterfly keeps
      a backup
      > set of each photo sent to the site.
      >
      > The
      backups are stored somewhere in California "off the
      > fault line," said
      David Bagshaw, chief executive of
      > Shutterfly.
      >
      > But
      suppose a Web-based business like Shutterfly goes out
      > of business?
      >
      > Mr. Bagshaw said he preferred to look on the bright
      side,
      > but offered this bit of comfort: "No matter what the
      >
      business circumstances, we'll always make people's images
      > available to
      them."
      >
      > Constant mobility can be another issue.
      >
      > Stephen Quinn,
      > who teaches journalism at Ball State University
      in Muncie,
      > Ind., moves frequently because of his work. He prefers
      to
      > keep the amount of paper in his life to a minimum, and
      > rarely
      makes printouts.
      >
      > Dr. Quinn has a box in the bottom drawer of
      his desk that
      > contains an eclectic set of storage disks dating back
      to
      > the early 1980's, when he started out on an Amstrad
      > computer.
      >
      > All of Dr. Quinn's poetry ("unpublished and
      unpublishable"
      > he says) and other writings are on those various
      digital
      > devices, along with his daily diaries.
      >
      > At some
      point, he wants to gather the material as a
      > keepsake for his children,
      but he has no way to read the
      > files he put on the Amstrad disks more
      than 20 years ago.
      > He has searched unsuccessfully for an Amstrad
      computer.
      >
      > "I have a drawer filled with disks and no machinery
      to read
      > it with," Dr. Quinn said.
      >
      > That is becoming a
      basic problem of digital life. Whatever
      > solution people might use, it is
      sure to be temporary.
      >
      > "We will always be playing catch up,"
      said Dr. Rutenbeck,
      > who is working at pruning his own digital past,
      discarding
      > old hard drives and stacks of old Zip disks.
      >
      > "It feels really good to do," he said, "just like I didn't
      > keep
      a box of everything I did in first grade."
      >
      >
      > Copyright
      2004 The New York Times Company
      >
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