Writing in LOST Magazine, Alexander Stille says that we are running out of time at the National Archives. Information stored in mechanical and electronic format is in danger of being lost forever.
The National Archives' Department of Special Media Preservation is a kind of museum of obsolete technology where Archives technicians try to tease information out of modern media that have long vanished from circulation. But the laboratory is more than a curious rag-and-bone shop of technologies past; in many ways, it offers a cautionary vision of the future. The problem of technological obsolescence — of fading words and images locked in odd-looking, out-of-date gizmos — is an even bigger problem for the computer age than for the new media produced in the first half of the 20th century.
One of the great ironies of the information age is that, while the late twentieth century will undoubtedly have recorded more data than any other period in history, it will also almost certainly have lost more information than any previous era. A study done in 1996 by the Archives concluded that, at current levels, it would take approximately 120 years to transfer the backlog of nontextual material (photographs, videos, film, audiotapes, and microfilm) to a more stable format. "And in quite a few cases, we're talking about media that are expected to last about 20 years," said Charles Mayn, the head of the laboratory. Decisions about what to keep and what to discard will be made by default, as large portions will simply deteriorate beyond the point of viability.
You can read the entire article at: http://www.lostmag.com/issue3/memory.php.