Monday, April 06, 2009

Keeping Important Stuff For Future Generations

You may have seen on the local news recently that the Cincinnati Museum Center is installing a new Time Capsule. Celebrating their anniversary recently, the Time Capsules that were installed when the iconic Union Terminal was built in 1931, were opened and contents displayed to the public. I found it fascinating what items the new capsule would contain. The local newspaper reported that it would contain “newspapers, letters from local dignitaries, local sports memorabilia and pieces of popular culture, such as boxes for the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPod and the packaging for the DVD of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Note, the packaging for the DVD was included not the DVD itself.

This got me to think about the challenges that we face as we try to keep up with the exploding volume of information and preserve it for generations to come. In 320 BC scholars at the Library of Alexandria were collecting written information and preserving it. It is interesting to note that if you were to find a papyrus sheet, the media of choice from that era, the information contained on that sheet could still be read. Jumping ahead 2000 plus years…you most likely have media in your home today acquired less than 20 years ago that you can no longer access. Do you still have a “record” player or an 8 Track Tape Deck? I bet you have some MS-Dos computer programs or games.

The problems facing regular folks like you and me pale in comparison to the professional archivists at the Library of Congress or National Archives. It is one thing to want to preserve a picture of little Suzie’s first grade class stage production of the “Velveteen Rabbit.” It is another thing to be charged with keeping records and information of science, medicine and geopolitical commerce.

An unintended consequence of the digital age is the lack of permanence of our “products” and information. Today methods of storage, retrieval and presentation change in a matter months rather than in the centuries or even millennia which has been the case for most of mankind’s existence on earth. A good example that I mentioned last year in this column is the disappearance of the VHS machine. Many of us still have a library of home movies recorded on VHS. A trip to the electronics store will demonstrate that players for VHS machines are as hard to find as dial telephones. Even today’s CD and DVD formats are changing. The DVD of yesterday is the Blu-Ray™ of today. There is great debate over the physical longevity of the CD and DVD discs. Will they suffer from degradation like audio and videotape? With this happen in a decade, 50 years, a century?

A long term solution has not yet been developed. An interim approach is to continuously move the content from one media to the newer one. The good news is that once a document, picture or video is digitized, unlike in the analog world, the copy is indeed a clone with no degradation.

For sure the problem is not going away soon. Stay tuned and don’t throw away that shoe box full of family photographs even if they are stored on your computer.

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