Times Article 028
Our History Vanish?
back to the High-Tech Times. As I sit here early in the year 2000,
happy in large part that I made it, my thoughts have turned to how
quickly everything is evolving. Especially in the technology arena,
what is new, state-of-the-art, and cutting-edge is almost instantly
superseded by something even newer, faster, and sexier. This evolution
is, of course, one reason why my company has been able to stay in
business since 1974, but what we are doing at CATI today has very
little resemblance to our tasks a short 25 years ago.
difference was shoved in my face a few days before Christmas when a
retired Stanford professor visited my office with a small but urgent
task. He walked in clasping a diskette full of very important data
from a NASA project he had completed in 1984, and asked me to burn it
onto a CD-ROM so that he could share this hands-on history with his
grandkids. His face turned more than slightly red when I told him that
I couldn’t do what he asked, as his data were stored on an
eight-inch floppy-disk from a then cutting-edge IBM mainframe
computer. And in fact I wasn’t able to even recommend anyone who could
read and transfer his data....
I began thinking about how many different forms of digital media
I’ve used since I entered the professional world just three short
decades ago. My first thought was personal rather than technical, as I
have many hours of Super-8 film of my three kids (the oldest of whom
just turned 30). Frankly, I have no idea where I would locate a film
projector these days that could play back, let along digitize, these
family treasures, so these assets have become essentially worthless.
quick search on the Web showed that the Stanford professor and I are
not the only ones who are having these problems. Librarians and
archivists warn that we are losing vast amounts of valuable scientific
and historical data due to obsolescence or complete disintegration!
For many years, scientists have claimed that the “1s” and “0s”
of binary digital data would be available forever -- but they lied!
back over a few boxes from my own career, I found some paper-punched
tapes, key-punch cards, computer mag tapes, and at least seven
different tape cartridge formats for which I have no suitable reader.
A quick call to my NASA friends at JPL revealed that they have already
lost up to 20 percent of the data collected during the 1976 Viking
mission to Mars due to similar problems. And libraries around the
world have huge databases that can only be accessed on computer
systems that are no longer sold or serviced.
by the National Media Lab, a Minnesota‑based government and
industry consortium, have found that magnetic tapes might last only a
decade, depending on storage conditions. The fate of floppy-disks,
videotape, and hard-drives is just as bleak. Even the CD‑ROM,
once touted as indestructible, is proving vulnerable to stray magnetic
fields, oxidation, humidity, and material decay.
“The more technologically advanced we get, the more fragile
we become,” stated Abby Smith of the Council on Library and
Information Resources in a rcent report to Congress.
many of the hardware and software configurations needed to tease
intelligible information from preserved disks and tapes are disappearing
in the name of progress. Archivists are in the process of resurrecting
the 1948 whistle‑stop oratory of President Harry Truman: the
“give‑'em‑hell speeches” were recorded on spools of thin
steel wire, a predecessor of reel‑to‑reel tape recordings.
Though some of the wires have rusted and snap during playback, these
specialists are busy digitizing what they're able to recover onto more
stable modern media.
even data migration isn’t a perfect solution. Recently, the Food and
Drug Administration said that some pharmaceutical companies were finding
errors as they transferred drug‑testing data from Unix to Windows
NT systems. In some instances, the errors resulted in
blood‑pressure numbers that were randomly off by up to eight
digits. We may need local museums of video and tape players, as well as
the computers and software that run them, just to maintain today’s
sure that this info will make some of our local printing companies very
happy. As I’ve been told a number of times, “Print is permanent!”
But go tell that to the thousands of librarians who are agonizing over
the mass disintegration of millions of older books, magazines, and
newspapers whose high acid content is turning their paper yellow and
brittle. The New York Public Library system estimates that it has more
than 5,000,000 books and periodicals that are too fragile to handle.
Their researchers literally had the materials fall apart in their hands
as they were turning pages!
all the books printed between 1850 - when machine-made paper went on the
market - and 1953 - when acid-free paper became a printing option - will
continue to self-destruct. There are also questions about the long-term
stability of the inks we use today to create digitally-printed books and
periodicals. As production shifts from well-known and stable offset inks
to toners and inkjets, will these printed materials fade, smudge, or
disappear even before the paper ages?
should we bet on the floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, Zip and Jaz cartridges, DAT
tapes, and other media? The latest information says that we really
can’t depend on any existing medium for data storage. There are no
easy answers to these questions. Probably a good start is to separate
the historical from the inconsequential, and then save onto the simplest
format. No, that’s not much help, but we’ve all got the same problem
you next month.