images.jpegNice OpEd column in the Financial Times about the permanence of digital media – something I am very concerned about.

But print has other advantages. It is impervious to viruses, hackers and other electronic intruders. Most important, it won’t be rendered unreadable when the technological wind changes. An FT article a few years ago pointed out that, while scholars can still read the 900-year old Domesday Book, written on sheepskin, a BBC project to create an equivalent 1986 record of British life, using adolescent diaries and video tours, was unusable within a decade. It had been recorded on huge laser discs and the machines no longer existed to run them.

Take a cd or dvd, for example. Nobody really knows what their shelf life is. It’s all guestimates. Same for data recorded on flash media? Shelf life? We don’t really know.

Thanks to BookofJoe for the heads-up.b


  1. With the cheap acid paper and binding being used today, most books have a very short survival time.

    Friends have received their author copies straight from the printer, and the books were already disintegrating.

    Many of the collectible, more expensively printed books I’ve stored in airtight boxes are in poor shape in under fifteen years.

    I’ve been allowed into the stacks of several major universities’ rare book rooms and have found them infested with bookworms. (Yes, they really exist.) The cost of having a perfect environment low in humidity and light as well as a fire retardant system that won’t destroy the books in case of fire are prohibitively expensive for most rare book collectors.

    Digital media requires careful upgrading of both the media and the software. In the last twenty years, I’ve gone from a giant floppy, the smaller floppy, the high density floppy, Zip disks, etc., etc as well as translating documents from Mac ProDOS up to the current version of Page to archive my own work and research.

    No method is perfect. All require the archivist’s care and vigilance.

    I believe that all methods should be used to save our past for our future.

  2. I think that the so-called permanence of printed works is exagerated.

    Left unsaid for example are fire, water, insect and mold damage to printed books. Also never mentioned is the long period when books were printed on cheap pulp paper which is now breaking down due to its acid content.

    Paper books printed on acid-free paper will survive for hundreds of years if they are properly cared for. Electronic books stored as simple text files will survive for hundreds of years if they are ‘properly cared for’ by having the data migrated from one storage medium to the next, as older technologies become obsolete.

    And it is so easy to transfer electronic data from one medium to the next. With today’s huge capacity storage devices you don’t need to handle thousands of CDs or DVDs, thus eliminating the physical labour of migrating and backing up the data. Instead you can store 3 copies of a library on 3 multi-terabyte hard disks. Keep the 3 copies in separate locations. If something better than a hard disk comes along all you have to do is connect the hard disks to it, and transfer the data to 3 of the new devices.

    That the BBC failed to transfer their 1986 data to a newer format, before the old format became completely inaccessable is a failure by the BBC to take reasonable care of their library, not of electronic data storage as a general strategy.

  3. Paper and parchment are lousy ways to preserve text. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of everything that was ever written survives today. The rest is dust. It’d be a lot easier to hack together a machine to read old laser discs than recover the Library of Alexandria from the smoke and ashes.

    Almost everything I wrote pre-computer is lost, at the bottom of a landfill somewhere. Everything I wrote post-computer, going back to single-sided 5.25″ floppies, is backed-up offsite and onsite in multiple formats. If there’s a problem with digital storage, it’s that it preserves too much.

    A bigger challenge to the archivists of the future may be breaking through the layers of encryption.

  4. Today most data is saved within the internet, so to speak in some kind of cloud storage.

    IMO the most reliable place for storing movies, music and literature are p2p file sharing systems.

    If you let data be free in the internet it will survive much longer then on any tape, cd, dvd, paper and so on.

    For really important data one should consider some kind of holographic storage within solid mater as christal for example.

  5. mygadgetblog said, “If you let data be free in the internet it will survive much longer then on any tape, cd, dvd, paper and so on.”

    The corruption with this method comes from the users, not the media. If I delete chunks of someone else’s work then put it online, most can’t tell it has been changed.

    Authenticity of content is as important to survival as media and software’s durability and translation capacity.

    Putting it on the Internet is the worst choice to insure survival. Plus, in many cases, it would be against copyright which has its own value in protecting content for the future.

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