The Paradox of Digital Preservation

The advent of the Internet as an easily accessible way to preserve and utilize digital information has led to large increase in funding in order to generate more digital information. While the expansion of digital information is implicitly believed to be a positive thing by individuals and institutions, both corporate and government, involved in the expansion of digital content, this attitude overlooks certain shortcomings inherent in digital information. Digital information may not be as permanent as once believed, due to old technologies becoming obsolete, difficulties in accessing old media, and web sites disappearing. Since there has been no precedent for this type of technology, there is no guarantee that our current digital information is reliable, or will even be able to be accessed by future generations.

There is a tendency to believe that information is eternal, but in fact, a large amount of human cultural history has already been lost. The cost of trying to recover this information from obsolete encoding systems can be staggering, as discovered even in the Reagan era when government emails had to be recovered. Part of the paradox in encoding digital information is that we desire to preserve it in its original form, using available methods, although we always desire to access it in the newest and most efficient ways possible. Technology which is created as “digital” may seem to avoid the problems in transferring an analog record to digital media, but in fact, there is an ever-increasing means of recording information, and may use software or computer hardware which may not be supported or available in five years. This necessitates transferring digital information to new platforms as technological revolutions occur, which may be a Sisyphean task as this information becomes larger in volume.

In order to ensure that digital media remains reliable, accessible, and relevant, the following problems must be considered. Currently there is no way to assess the reliability of information created on the Internet, so reliable information must be provided on inter-operable platforms akin to those used in libraries. Standards must also be created to determine which metadata, such as copyrights, should be preserved and updated. This would create an integrated workflow and preservation process by which information can be assessed, preserved, updated, and retired if needed. A system such as this will require increased research by corporate entities as well as governments, taking into accounts both values and costs.

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AUTHOR: Josip Ivanovic