Re: Preserving Historical Media

Tim O'Connor


There is no reason to be concerned about file formats - JPEG TIFF PNG GIF etc etc - because they are simply logical layouts of information that any 12 year old computer programmer could easily decode. It's the physical storage (as Tony describes) that becomes obsolete on a regular basis - partly because there is a powerful incentive (we used to call it Planned Obsolescence) which is MONEY. When I worked on high speed internet routers that could switch terabits of data in just a few seconds, we knew that random 'alpha particles' coming through the Earth's atmosphere could 'flip' a 0 to a 1 or 1 to a 0 - and without 'error correcting' encoding there's no way to repair it. The problem is that redundancy in the encodings takes up space - The better the correction algorithm, the more space it takes up! So your PC and most of the world's computers and storage systems use only 'parity checks' - A single bit error can be detected, but not fixed. When it happens, your PC usually reboots itself since an error can lead to very bad things happening. Over time it is a CERTAINTY that everything is struck again and again with these random cosmic rays.

So anyway, a DIGITAL ARCHIVE could encode whatever they have (eg images) inside a "wrapper" that provides protection against these random errors - regardless of the media used to store them. That would ensure the integrity of the data for centuries, at least.

Or here's a thought - transfer the DIGITAL images to ANALOG films with a known long life span (like Kodachrome haha). Then store them safely, away from light, heat, humidity, and even air. :-)

Tim O'Connor

P.S. I think this topic began as SUNSHINE something or other... :-D

P.P.S. As the Age of Technology reaches its peak, only now do we old folks realize that it can't possibly go on forever. If it weren't for a few scraps of papyrus and stone carvings mankind would know almost nothing about Greece or Rome or ancient China. Will there be any scraps from our tech epoch, I wonder?

On 9/8/2021 2:04 PM, Tony Thompson wrote:
The comment on this topic, made in passing, about obsolescence of storage media, is far from trivial. Museums and libraries which began to store information on various kinds of disks had to transfer them to CD and then to DVD. A number then had policies to re-record those disks every five years, in case disks weren’t actually permanent. Today, disk readers are already obsolescent as solid-state storage gains ground. If you were an archive director, how would you like to confront the investment necessary to change storage media for a large collection?

And though it does appear that such formats as TIFF and PDF are holding up -- so far — they may well be superseded in the future. Obviously any archive has to stay on top of such issues and be proactive about changing.

An example often cited in this context is the change made by many libraries, to be able to dispose of voluminous newspaper holdings: just transfer them to microfilm! Problem solved, old newspapers dumped. Then over the years, the microfilm got scratched and faded in use, and the microfilm readers, now unsupported in many cases, were hard to repair. But the originals were gone. Lesson learned? We’ll see.

Tony Thompson
*Tim O'Connor*
*Sterling, Massachusetts*

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