Forgotten century?: the problem of preserving the past against obsolescence

News story on the Guardian today:

Piles of digitised material – from blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails – may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct, Google’s vice-president has warned.

In this story comes together all my hats: librarian; novelist writing about memoralisation; biographer using the traces of the past. In the long and often intelligent conversation in the comments thread, opinion seemed divided between those who agreed there was a problem (many of them Gen Xers and Baby Boomers); the technological optimists who think it will take five minutes to write a program to read anything in the future; and those living in a perpetual present who don’t even care if our worthless traces are obliterated.

In 2008, when I started working in the library I remain in one day a week, I was confronted with the problem of the Tape Collection, thousands of significant and insignificant public lectures and sermons recorded on decaying cassettes in a time-poor library. In the early 1980s, it was the pride of the library; they had to limit how many tapes anyone borrowed at once. They had a master version and a copy of each one. Thirty years later, we could never give the Tape Library the thousands of hours it required. We weeded. We began a digitisation program in between the gaps of just trying to get through the mountain of new material. IT issues ground us to a halt; there wasn’t enough server space to provide public access to the files. The digitised files are waiting for the right moment on a hard drive. But the majority of the data remains on tapes. And here, as far as I’m concerned, is the real problem. Not a limit of technology, but of time, in libraries and archives with mountains of Material Awaiting Processing, often measured in metres.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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