Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Food for Thought from the Library of Congress

The Signal is a fantastic new digital preservation blog by the Library of Congress. It’s only been operating for a few months, but they’ve already had some really great posts on various digital preservation topics, including this one on the challenges posed by creating a digital time capsule.

This is a really interesting conundrum, and one that most people probably wouldn’t think about unless they happened to be building a time capsule (and when’s the last time you did that?). So let’s imagine that Dartmouth College wanted to create a time capsule of the year 2011, to be opened in 2061. What would we want to include in such a capsule? For starters, we might want to include video or audio footage of this year’s commencement address by Conan O’Brien. We’d probably include pictures and maybe the poster from this year’s Winter Carnival. How about press releases from campus events? What about a working copy of the soon-to-be-departed Blitzmail system?

Now, as The Signal’s blog post asks, how would you ensure that these items will be usable in 50 years? All of these objects originated in digital form...even the posters would have been created on a computer. Some, like the posters and the photographs, could be printed for easy encapsulation. Others, like the video and the Blitzmail software, would present a much greater challenge.

You could burn the video to a DVD, but the life expectancy of even the best-quality DVDs is only 20-30 years when stored under ideal environmental conditions. Can we guarantee that our time capsule will remain at 77 degrees and 50% relative humidity until it’s opened? And even if we can, what if DVDs are completely replaced by Blu-Ray or some other new technology by the year 2061? Such things have happened before.

The software offers a real challenge, though. Do you simply save a copy of the installation disc, and hope that it will be readable by the computers of 2061? Do you save an entire working computer and just hope that it will still function properly after not having been touched for 50 years? Neither one of these seems like an ideal solution.

I certainly don’t have answers to these massively complex digital preservation questions. The Signal offers some good suggestions for managing time capsule files though, so be sure to check out the blog. And if you have any ideas, please share them in the comments! Collaboration is the key to digital preservation success.

Written by Helen Bailey

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