Is it possible that having so many choices in our electronic digitized age is little more than a ravenous tiger laying in wait for us and our treasured digital photos, films, files, life stories and other pertinent historical information?
The digital age is remarkable in a myriad of ways, but if we become overconfident that what we want to keep will always be there for us, we’re setting ourselves up for a loss that could be huge.
Last week I attended a program given by the Cedar Rapids Literary Club. Retired Cedar Rapids Gazette editor Mary Sharp presented a stunning—yet startling—presentation on what all these variations and choices in our electronic lifestyle could mean not too far down the pipeline–unless we search for committed solutions.
With Ms. Sharp’s permission I am including the full print copy of her 20-minute presentation with today’s blog. A bibliography for this material, as well as her full bio follows.
She said it was the loss of key historical information at her newspaper that started her thinking on the topic of just how safe are we really . . .
‘That excitable and unreliable old lady’
Or, what happens to history in the Digital Era?
By Mary Sharp
Just so we get any drama out of the way early: “That excitable and unreliable old lady” in the title is that excitable and unreliable old thing we call history.
French writer Guy de Maupassant came up with that memorable phrase in the 1800s. He wrote a lot of short stories about wars. And the winners of wars get to write the history, as another writer, Alex Haley, told us.
But what I’d like to have us think about tonight is what happens when “that excitable and unreliable old lady” simply disappears, when she hikes up her skirts and skedaddles, when we go looking for her and find … nothing.
History is disappearing every day in this new Digital Age. Never before have so many people had so much access to so much information. The flip side, though, is how easily digital information is lost. Erased. Altered. Gone with the wind.
How many of you, for example, have ever tried to open an e-mail attachment, but it won’t open? Have you ever gone looking for a website, only to find it no longer exists? Have you ever clicked a “link” to find it’s broken, to have it go nowhere? Have you ever gone through a computer upgrade at work, where most of your documents and e-mails and spreadsheets “made it” into the new system, but some didn’t? Have you ever had your computer “crash,” taking with it your e-mails, your documents, your contacts, your pictures, never to be seen again?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve glimpsed what might be our digital future—or our lack of a past.
I was surprised to learn that a number of people have been worried—for at least the past 10 years—that this early Digital Era will become a blank spot in history.
Web consultant Terry Kuny puts it this way: “There are new barbarians at the gate. … We are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are … living in the midst of Digital Dark Ages.” (Pole)
Cornell University librarian Oya Rieger adds: “Information has never been so accessible, or so fragile.” (M-M)
I think we can all agree that access to information and instant communication is a modern-day wonder. You can sit at your desk and look at copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the original version of “Beowulf.” You can look at news and pictures from a century ago or from five minutes ago. You can check census and genealogy records. You can e-mail friends in Japan and hear back from them in five minutes. You can look up information on anything, anywhere, at any time.
But these routine miracles come with a down side. Digital information is far more fragile and impermanent than in paper or on microfilm. It can be corrupted to the point it is unreadable. It can be altered into a lie. Its technology is quickly outdated; meaning the files, the pictures, we could see today can’t be viewed tomorrow.
You can liken it to a teeter-totter. You have a great big fat load of information on one side and a little-bitty baby of preservation on the other side. And the baby is not growing nearly as fast as the big fat load.
I have six examples of how we have already lost—or come close to losing—our digital history.
No. 1: In 1986, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to undertake a wonderful project on the 900th anniversary of “Domesday,” the huge survey William the Conqueror took in 1086 of 13,000 towns in medieval England and Wales. William did it so he could collect taxes, but the huge volume became a rich historical look at medieval times. The BBC wanted to create a record just like that, chronicling what life was like in Britain in 1986. More than a million English citizens contributed pictures, essays and videos about their lives. Fifteen years later—only fifteen years later—modern computers couldn’t read the 1986 disks. William the Conqueror’s survey lasted 900 years, the BBC’s fifteen. (The disks were eventually accessed, but it was close.) (D-H, P-M) This is an example of history that almost disappeared.
No. 2: In the United States, an ambitious and popular web site—called My History is America’s History—was created in 1999 in honor of the millennium. Thousands of people submitted their family histories. Three years later, in 2002, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities ran out, and the web site disappeared. Only four of the stories survived. (D-H) This is an example of history lost.
No. 3: In Riverside, California, the history department at the University of California-Riverside created a popular community historical website. It had more than 1,700 links to other historical websites. In 2002, the history department deleted the website after deciding it could no longer maintain it. Years after its demise, web pages continue to link to the non-existent site. (D-H) This is an example of history that disappeared.
No. 4: The Gazette staff turned in outstanding work when covering the devastating 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids. Some of the best work appeared on the newspaper’s online pages, which were packed with powerful photos, vital information, questions and answers. No one thought—in the chaos and darkness—to save electronic copies of those pages. This is an example of history lost.
No. 5: Google bought the Paper of Record, an archive of 490 Mexican newspapers. The archive had 20 million pages covering three centuries. It was free to anyone with a computer. After Google bought the archive, though, users were redirected to Google, where search results were garbled and incomplete. If you wanted to use the old archive—the user-friendly one where you could page through the newspapers—you could buy a subscription for 10 people, for $2,500. (M-M) This is an example of history that kind of disappeared. It’s still there; it’s just not very accessible. Electronic information—digital history—is not saved if it cannot be accessed.
No. 6: Engineers at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard were looking at old computer files about the USS Nemitz. The design drawings looked different. It was nothing huge—a dotted line instead of dashes, minor dimension changes. But it was enough to worry the people responsible for maintaining the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Engineers found that the small changes had occurred when the old files were moved to a new computer system. (P-M) This is an example of history that didn’t disappear but was altered.
The examples go on and on.
Up to 10 percent of the audio CDs recorded in the 1980s and stored at the Library of Congress—in ideal conditions—now have serious “data errors,” meaning they can’t be played. (D-H) Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena found that about 20 percent of the magnetic tapes storing information from early space flights had deteriorated. The scientists had to search for, find and then build tape heads to read the data before it could be moved to newer technology. (AHA) History was saved, but at considerable cost in time and money.
What happens in 50 years—even 10 years—to all the digitized documents, pictures, spreadsheets, drawings, books and websites that form our world today?
And lest you think I’m Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling, consider this stunning fact: As of 2003, about 10 years ago, 90 percent of all the information created in the world was in digital form. Ink-on-paper content represented less than 1 percent—only 0.01 percent. (D-H)
Let me summarize the three biggest problems we face in preserving our Digital History. And then—in a much shorter discussion—I’ll share some possible solutions.
The biggest and most confounding problem in preserving digital history lies in the TECHNOLOGY that creates it.
Newer versions of software cannot always “read” older versions. Or maybe it can read some of the information but not open some of the attachments. Many of the web pages created in the early 1990s are no longer readable. (D-H)
Computer software is updated every 18 months to two years. Computers themselves and their storage systems are being replaced on “breathtaking” cycles of two to five years. (P-M)
This is technological obsolescence on steroids!
Unlike books or journals on library shelves, websites and computer storage systems require regular attention and maintenance. It’s expensive, too. Library print collections can weather a few tough budget years. But “a few lean years could cause large portions of the electronic record to disappear.” (M-M)
Also, there are things we simply didn’t know—that magnetic tapes, for example, where we’ve been storing computer information forever, begin to deteriorate in 30 years. Now that we know that, we need to get precious information transferred into newer technology. There are those “miles and miles” of magnetic tape from the early space missions. (AHA) There’s the oral history of the Navajos, collected on audio and videotape. (AHA) There are the interviews of soldiers and Marines who served in World War II.
These tapes can be converted to CDs and computer disks. It takes time, it takes money. But it first takes someone knowing the information is there and that it will be lost if not transferred. That’s true today. It’s even truer tomorrow.
Richard Salvucci, a history professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said this: “Every time I hear somebody is going to digitize something for posterity, I think to myself, ‘Good luck.’ Because if you can digitalize it, you can vaporize it.” (M-M)
Worrying about saving old stuff is, of course, not as much fun or as profitable as developing a new “app” for a cell phone or a computer. Newer and faster are rewarded. In most cases, the creators of our new technologies aren’t even thinking about, let alone planning for, long-term access to digital products. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in his influential book, “The Road Ahead,” does not once mention the word “preservation.” (AHA) (Quoting Terry Sanders’ film, “Into the Future.”)
The second problem facing Digital History is the sheer VOLUME and COMPLEXITY of the electronic record.
The National Archives estimates the Clinton administration produced around 40 million e-mails. The Bush administration produced 100 million. You can see the trajectory.
It would take years to copy those e-mails to magnetic tape, the previous means of storage. And the e-mails are just the tip of the iceberg. This mass does not include the tables and charts, the spreadsheets, the pictures, videos, ship drawings, and so on, that lurk below the waterline. The National Archives in Washington, trying to get its arms around this problem, found that federal government documents are on more than 4,500computer file types. (P-M) How do you save all that? How do you search it?
How do you update it?
Ken Thibodeau, who heads the National Archives Electronic Records Archive, said that electronic records are being sent to the archives at 100 times the rate of paper records. He adds: “We don’t know how to prevent the loss of most digital information that’s being created today.” (P-M)
The third problem for Digital History concerns how easily an electronic record can be ALTERED, sometimes without even leaving your tracks.
Think about how online content already is blocked and changed in places like China and Burma and Syria. With so much of our own electronic content stored off-site—in “the cloud”—it would be fairly easy for some malcontent to, say, change the spelling of Madonna’s name or to slightly alter one of her pictures. If your favorite politician says something stupid, it’s even possible to try and rewrite the online history of, say, Paul Revere’s ride.
In the news business these days, online editors are being asked to “unpublish” news stories, to take them off websites. Maybe it’s an “old” story about an arrest that shows up in a Google search and is interfering with someone getting a job. Maybe it’s an inaccurate letter to the editor. Sometimes an arrest is reported but not the dismissal of the charge. Sometimes an “ex” asks to have a home address removed, fearing violence.
Online editors sometimes grant those wishes, thereby “revising” history. One online site now takes down arrest records for minor offenses after six months. The information disappears —something that didn’t happen—couldn’t happen—with ink-on-paper newspapers.
Lawyers also are having trouble with digital technology. In legal documents, attorneys need to know who made a change, when, and what was changed. But when electronic documents are copied or stored on computer disks, this “audit trail” can be lost. You still have the final document, just not its history. (P-M)
People who’ve read George Orwell’s “1984” worry that Big Brother can simply rewrite history, removing all references to Oceania. Or perhaps Taiwan.
But one expert—Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information—isn’t worried about Big Brother: “Nefarious action by a government or an individual is far less likely to change the historic record than is the low-key, haphazard deterioration of the record.” (M-M)
It’s the little things that chip away at the rock of history—people getting themselves removed from an online news archive, someone dying or changing jobs and their website disappearing, magnetic tapes lying forgotten in a basement, rotting.
Writer Melinda Burns sums it up this way: “The (digital) future is less ‘1984’ or ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and more (like) ‘99 bottles of beer on the wall.’” (M-M)
The good news in all this: The Library of Congress, the National Archives, librarians, historians, computer developers are working on these problems. The bad news: No one is saying they have the answers.
Just this month, David Ferriero, the head of the National Archives, said access to the massive Electronic Records Archive is “clunky.” Also, he wants federal agencies to do a better job preserving the electronic records, given that 94 percent of all the agencies are failing to do that.
Right now, three approaches are being pursued to save our digital history. They are 1) technology preservation, 2) migration, and 3) emulation. They sound complicated because they are. All three have problems. (Summary of Pole, D-D, M-M, P-M)
- Technology Preservation—Imagine a huge warehouse on the outskirts of town, filled to bursting with old computers and old computer programmers. This equals Technology Preservation—where computers and software made in 2010 are saved so that, in 2050, they can access the digital documents, pictures, files, and spreadsheets, created in 2010. Extend this idea into the future, and you can imagine how much space it would take, the difficulty of finding information in different systems, the cost of maintaining that equipment in working order. A more local example: KCRG has miles of old videotape archived, and only one old tape reader left that can view it, if you can even find the tape. Technology Preservation, as a technique to save history, is a stopgap measure—OK until we can figure out something better.
- Migration – Migration simply means taking digital information and copying it from an old system into a new system—upgrading from Microsoft Word 2007 to Word 2010. The electronic information “migrates.” This is the most common method businesses and government now use. It’s incredibly expensive. It’s unending because there’s always new technology. Migration requires a commitment to update old electronic records. It’s equivalent to photocopying all the books in a physical library every five years. Historians don’t like migration that much because, over time, the “original” is lost or distorted. But it’s better than having nothing.
- Emulation – Emulation allows a new computer to “emulate” or imitate an old computer or old software. That way, the new computer can run old programs and show old files—making a Microsoft Word 2007 document work on Windows 2050. Emulation is also called “backward compatibility.” It’s what happens with kids’ videogames—allowing them to play their old games on new systems. But for huge archives—think government—emulation is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And it hasn’t been tested on a large scale. Historians think this approach would be better than the other two because it retains context. All the attachments should open. But will it work?
Underlying these potential solutions is the crying need for development of global standards for digital information. I think it’s safe to say we do not need 4,500 electronic file types. Can’t we get by with, say, 100? We also need universal policies on copyrights so libraries can copy electronic information to new systems. Some countries already do this.
A few experts believe such universal, global standards are impossible—that it goes against human nature and the Wild West nature of the World Wide Web. Consultant Cory Doctorow, for one, argues that people are lazy and stupid and that they lie … meaning we’ll just have to muddle through and hope some pieces of our early Digital History survive.(D-H) Or hope Google comes up with a way to make sense of it all.
More optimistic experts, though, note that the scientists mapping the human genome came up with a universal standard for all data. It allowed scientists all over the world to contribute to that massive project, finishing it faster than anyone thought possible.
Also, electronic music developed global recording standards. The CD you buy in France will play back home in Iowa. And if you can get musicians to agree on one format, surely there’s hope for the rest of us.
In conclusion, I’m not sure where to stand on the Digital Ice Age warning—if I fit into that camp of optimists or in the camp that holds “people are stupid.”
But I do know a few things.
I know that knowledge cannot advance without access to credible, reliable information. I know that information is not preserved—history is not served—if information cannot be read, seen, accessed. You can have a garage full of eight-track tapes you might as well dump if you don’t have an eight-track tape player.
I also know that ink-on-paper does not guarantee the preservation of history. Julius Caesar burned the Ancient Library at Alexandria, destroying the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled. A flood wiped out historic Literary Club essays. Great wars and storms, the great movements of people, the Holocaust—all have purged the paper record.
I also know it’s time for me to quit my romanticized pining for the handwritten manuscripts of Jefferson and Lincoln and Hemingway, and give up rhapsodizing about seeing the paragraphs they crossed out, the words they changed.
No, my energies—our energies—can be better put toward pushing Congress, universities, Google, businesses, the world community, to pay more attention to the preservation of digital records. We need to insist on universal standards for the creation and storage of electronic content—our collective human history.
Locally, we can ask questions: Is the history of Rockwell-Collins’ contribution to manned space flight recorded in an updated, searchable database? Are oral interviews with prominent African Americans, with war veterans, with flood victims, with native Meskwakis saved in a format that can be searched? Who will see that those CDs or disks are updated to new technologies? Can that century of microfilmed Gazettes be digitized and made searchable?
It’s up to us. Preservation of our digital history depends as much on our collective willpower and long-term support as it does on technology. Without the will, there will be no way. And that excitable old lady of history will become even more unreliable than she always has been.
Mary Sharp is a freelance writer/editor who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She retired in December 2010 after 16 years as city editor for The Gazette, Iowa’s second-largest newspaper. Her career includes 35 years with daily newspapers in Iowa and Illinois and five years in public relations for governmental agencies in Iowa and California. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Northwest Missouri State, she completed one year of graduate work in American Studies at the University of Wyoming. She can be reached at: email@example.com
Citations in this paper are marked with abbreviations (below):
AHA—“Preserving the Past: Into the Future with Terry Sanders” by Pillarisetti Sudhir, April 1998 Perspectives, American Historical Association (www.historians.org).
D-H—“Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005 (328 pages, $19.95) (http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/preserving).
M-M—“Digital Disappearance: Will the Past Last in the Digital Age?” by Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune/Smart Journalism/Real Solutions, Feb. 25, 2010 (www.miller-mccune.com).
N-G—“NARA Chief: Agencies Want Updated Records Management Processes” by Joseph Marks, April 4, 2012 (www.nextgov.com)
P-M—“The Digital Ice Age” by Brad Reagan, Oct. 1, 2009, Popular Mechanics (www.popularmechanics.com).
Pole—“Long-Term Preservation of Digital Assets—Some Specific Aspects” by Maria Styblinska, Institut of Informatics, University of Silesia, Sosnowiec, Poland, from proceedings of the International Multiconference on Computer Science and Information Technology, pgs. 317-324.
“Archiving in the Digital Age: How Do We Preserve Our Present for the Future?” by Jeffrey Horrell, Dartmouth College dean of libraries and librarian of the college, and Martin Wybourne, Dartmouth College vice provost for research and professor of physics and astronomy (www.dartmouth.edu).
“Don’t Know Much About History” by Brian Bolduc, The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2011.
“The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” by Robert S. Wolff, Spring 2012, Writing History in the Digital Age (http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu)
“You Never Write Any More (Well, Hardly Anyone Does)” by Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press, October 2011.