Our Present History Could Be Lost to Future Generations

One of the fathers of the Internet claims this century could be lost to future historians. I am not sure I agree with Vint Cerf, now a vice president at Google, but I do believe his comments are worth reading and considering.

Data presently stored on outdated technology such as VHS tapes, vinyl records, cassette tapes and floppy disks has already been lost, according Cerf. That is just the beginning, he told a conference last week hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The lack of an electronic storage mechanism that can withstand centuries of time threatens to erode documents and digitally-stored memories through a process he has often referred to as “bit rot.”

You can read more in an article in MarketWatch at http://goo.gl/ETtfgK.

I agree with Vint Cerf that this is a significant problem and the need to preserve data deserves attention. However, the article ignores that fact that corporations, governments, and even non-profits are already preserving their data to make sure it lasts for centuries.

The article seems to assume that once data is created, it is left alone and stored only on the original media. Such an assumption overlooks the fact that any well-run data center periodically copies its data to new media. Information recorded decades ago on punch cards is still available today as it was copied years ago onto disk drives, CD disks, and other long-term media. Even old music recorded years ago on 78-rpm records is now available as MP3 files. If you like old music, you can listen to it on your modern iPod or any other digital devices, even though the music was not originally saved on such a device. No old hand-cranked phonograph is required. The same is true for digital data as well. If the information still has any value, it can be copied time and time again to newly-invented storage media.

The bigger problem is with the information stored in homes and in smaller corporations that do not employ data professionals to keep their data alive and available on modern media. You can fix the problem in your home by simply copying data, home movies, videos, and other media onto new media as it becomes available and always before the old media becomes obsolete.

Data centers have been doing exactly that for more than 50 years. You can do the same. The only problem is that many people will not realize the need and will not update the storage media in time.

What’s in your closet?

13 Comments

I agree with Vince cerf . Consider it is not unusual to find s book document or postcard that is 100 years old. Lots of computer media has errors after only 10 years. Computer media needs regular maintance or copying for it to survive. this will only happen in some kind of archive.

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I agree that the potential for loss is there. I also agree with you that much of that data is being transferred and saved. I read a story about 60 years ago o the little duckling (or was it a chicken) who ran around telling everyone, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” I think we have too many folks who are extremists in their warnings and that makes the rest of us tend to ignore those overboard warnings. My grandmother used to make 8 mm movies at every family occasion. When she died, my brother converted them to VHS tapes. Now I have converted them to DVD format. No need to panic.

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There’s always clay tablets. We can still read the Babylonian ones :o)

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I tend to agree with Vint Cerf too. My husband (getting ready to retire) & I have many VHS tapes recorded from personal home movies, etc. We have many slides from his days in the military and our early travel years before digital cameras. If we died tomorrow, our children would not feel the need to preserve the history these things could represent. They would simply be in a hurry to clear things out. To that end, we have purchased a DVD/VHS recorder to transfer our important VHS tapes to DVDs. And we have purchased a new scanner which will scan slides, film strips as well as photos AND oversized photos (Like my husband’s 11″ x 21″ boot camp photo) The scanner comes with updated software which will allow “stitching” of these oversized items. These things will be preserved in digital format. I don’t know if anyone will be able to access them 100 years from now but I think we are doing what we can, because some day these items might have some importance to our descendants and to others as well.

I agree, also with Dick, some companies are preserving and constantly updating their data preservation. But many companies, some with storied histories are not, probably because of the cost. The engineering company my husband works for so far, is not. Because many of their early records are large blueprints, they take up much space. Not too long ago, an uneducated employee was found to have thrown out very old original files because he needed the room to store newer items. These are now lost. Such a shame for this historical privately owned company – the oldest of its kind in the U.S. .

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I have to agree with Vince as well. While digital records can be preserved it requires constant effort. Much more so than other types of media. Even one lousy record caretaker in the line can be the end of the line for the records.

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And yet books that are hundreds of years old are still readable and because hundreds or thousands of copies of titles were printed and distributed, they are backed up all over the world.

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    Well, books with rag-paper pages can indeed last hundreds of years. On the other hand, 19th- and 20th-century wood pulp paper pages are so high in acid that they can start to yellow and become brittle in just a decade or two.

    And for what it’s worth, all magnetic media do have serious durability issues, and this includes audio and video tapes of all formats.

    But shellac and vinyl audio recordings have a very, very long shelf life, and the mechanical technology to play them has never (so far) become extinct (unlike, say, some 10 and 15 year old computer hardware and software).

    I would wager that a properly stored vinyl record, stored verticallly in moderate humidity and temperature conditions, will be playable (i.e. will yield all the audio information stored on it) for centuries to come.

    Whereas “bit rot” and “data degradation” are real things, and have been the subject of discussion in computer science circles for many years.

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And if there are problems with you vinyl record not playing back correctly, all you have to do is to tape a penny or two to the tone arm.

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I think Cerf is pointing out a fact that many people do not consider when they create digital records and it is a point worth repeating until people start listening. As a librarian, I know that memory institutions especially run into this problem. You state that “any well-run data center periodically copies its data to new media.” While that is certainly true, it’s not as easy as it sounds or as systematic as you may think. Digital preservation is a burden on most archive’s or library’s staff, resources, and budget, especially for smaller institutions and especially in a climate where they are usually the first to have their funding slashed. In the digital world, it is no longer enough to make sure papers are kept in acid-free folders. Creating the infrastructure to preserve these files and maintaining a digital preservation plan, especially as current technological hardware becomes obsolete and bit-rot sets in, is a race against time. It’s necessary for people to understand this problem, take steps to preserve their own digital history, and advocate for funding to allow memory institutions to preserve our collective digital footprint.

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I “inherited” quite a few photos when my mother died and they are all very precious to me. My own photos are gradually being sorted and I am only keeping those of family members – the thousands of scenic views wont mean a thing to my daughter. However, my concern is for the next generation. Numerous times my daughter has lost all her photos, due to technology failure – and some of the very precious pics of my grandchildren have only survived because I asked for copies at the time. She doesnt seem concerned.
I can see a generation with no photos to illustrate their family trees.

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Like Sandra, a number of relatives have lost all of their photos when a phone broke, and lost all of their contact information for friends and relatives. Has no one heard of backups? One relative lost all photos when taking them to Walmart to get them put on a CD. Walmart made the CD, it was mailed, but never reached its destination, and Walmart had deleted the photos off the phone.

Personally, one of the first things I do is copy the photos from the phone onto my computer. I haven’t been quite so good at making sure I have all the contact information from my phone in my computer. One of our greatest resources are my grandmother’s address books. They have not only addresses, but also dates of BMD, entered as the events happened.

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Another perspective is that there are so many more “records” these days — everyone seems to be photographing everything with their phones, posting short clips of just about everything, there are billions of transactions daily leaving data trails, enormous amount of social media, and on and on — even if there were a way to preserve all these data sets, who could or would ever sort through them –even “just” their own — to determine which are worth saving. Data glut I suspect will trump data lost.

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Would love to see a follow-up with some suggested products or services Dick feels are good options when transferring old formats into digital files. Getting everything into the digital realm is one hurdle, then keeping it all updated and evolving with technology is another. Dick always has great technology recommendations. If there’s a past article I’ve missed my apologies and feel free to point me in that direction!

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