Thursday, August 21, 2008

Digital Legacies

According to an article in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Capturing the Bush Legacy Online," an effort is underway to "capture snapshots of every federal government Web site before ... the next president moves into the White House and starts remaking the federal bureaucracy to fit his agenda." The goal of the effort, according to the article, is "to preserve millions of agency records in an online archive that librarians hope will provide a valuable trove for historians, government scholars, and the public."

Good luck.

Actually, an effort to capture the official websites of government agencies will probably fare much better than an attempt to archive actual paper or electronic documents. The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and "executive privilege" is such that even if documents escape the shredder (or its digital equivalent) before January 20th, chances are that they'll be classified so highly that they'll be stored in an ice cavern on a lesser moon of Jupiter and guarded by Kozmo the Ultimate Monster, and no one will be able to read them before the sun goes nova. Historians everywhere are wringing their hands.

But the problem goes farther and is more insidious than just the secrecy fetish of a paranoid administration. The entire issue of how we transmit information into the future is one of critical importance to all of us.

Consider that libraries and museums around the world hold tens of millions of books, scrolls, drawings, and works of art, some of which are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Yet despite their age, we can still hold them in our hands, read them (if with difficulty), and put them to use. Now consider whether or not you can play those old 8-track tapes and 78-rpm records in your attic. Or open documents you created with the word processor in your old Wang computer, now stored on 7-inch floppy discs. Or look at the pictures you took at last year's family reunion if the computer is down.

See the problem?

I wrote about one aspect of this problem last September in my most-viewed-post-ever on this blog: Don't Dig Here! The issue there was the linguistic and cultural challenge of how we can warn people tens of thousands of years in the future of the danger of nuclear waste storage sites. The question of how we can access our accumulated knowledge when it's stored in hundreds of formats requiring many types of incompatible devices to read is not a trivial matter.

The Library of Congress is working hard on the problem of digital preservation. The LOC website (one of those which will be captured as discussed in the article with which we began this post) has a very good discussion of the problem and offers many sound pieces of advice on what you can do to preserve your and your family's own digital heritage. I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about the issue, read the LOC website, and develop your own digital history preservation plan.

Someday, my grandchildren may inherit my interest in the history of their family. I don't want them to have to wonder what I looked like because they can't recover pictures from a file no one knows how to open, or be unable to read what I wrote over the years in this blog because the records can't be accessed by Web 10.5. And I'd really like to think that they'll be able to access the records of the Bush administration.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

Digital history? You're kidding! I've got 4 years of digital pictures that aren't organized or printed out. I keep saying I'll do that....someday. I can't even imagine how to preserve any documents when I can't get my head around the pictures.
Yes, this is a huge issue. I'm glad smart people are thinking about it. But I'm clearly not one of them!

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Do we really want to preserve Bush's legacy? I would think most of this country would like to forget he ever existed once he leaves office.

Bilbo said...

Katherine - I was thinking of you when I wrote about the Wang files on the 7-inch disks...

Amanda said...

You have a really useful topic today. Backing things up is something I'm definitely slack with but I know I have to do. The site you pointed to has lots of good tips there. Thanks.

Thanks for letting me know about the smokestack. I was calling it a funnel and didn't even think to ask what that was called. Silly me :P. Do you also know what the horizontal yellow bar across the wheels is called?

Blog Stalker said...

Good Topic. Some very good points that I guess I need to address myself. As far as Bush's legacy goes, time will tell and I am sure If someone wants it(information) there will be a way to get it. But who knows, that may be wishful thinking.

Mike said...

GAAAA! this is going to be a long reply (for me).
There is an archive site out in cyber space now.
When it first started it picked up a lot more info than it is now. I don't know why it's changed but it usually gets down to money. But I'll bet everyone can find parts of their blog on this site.

Don't have a 78rpm record player? I've got one that plays 78, 45, 33 1/3 and 16 2/3's. I'm going to make sure it gets passed down to my kids. Also don't throw away that reel to reel tape player, 8 track, cassette player or any other player.

And I was reading away here and saw s..... fetish. I went quickly back only to discover "secrecy fetish". Very disappointing.

KKTSews said...

Gee, I'm not sure I'm happy you associate me with the wonderful world of Wang. I'll probably have nightmares tonight about reloading the operating system with those large floppys (all 75 of them)!