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Born Digital? Die Young

by Ivan Amato
December 8, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 49

IN our mania to digitize every word, sound, image, financial transaction, supermarket choice, scientific datum, and every other form of expression, an anxious cadre of library and information scientists (LIS) fears that the collective eschewing of traditional, durable recording media like paper could bring on what Jerome P. McDonough calls “THE DIGITAL DARK AGE.”

Grave concern: RIP data.

“Our cultural heritage is being set down in digital forms as the primary, first record,” says McDonough, an LIS assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Rather than being born on stone, paper, film, or some other substratum known to last for millennia, centuries, or at least many decades, today’s digital records amount to 1s and 0s stored on physical media that don’t last long and are written in a hodgepodge of file formats running on various computing platforms that are even more ephemeral.

“There are moments when I feel like Wile E. Coyote who doesn’t realize he ran off of a cliff and is running in midair,” says Jim Kuhn, head of collection information services at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C.

What computer today comes with a 31/2-inch floppy drive, let alone the 51/4- and 8-inch drives from late in the past millennium? Even with some universal means of reading data on any medium, future access to the file formats that make data usable is not guaranteed.

“If we can’t keep that stuff alive, we will lose a large part of our artistic and cultural record,” McDonough says.

It’s already happening. Some 10 to 20% of the data on Mars collected only three decades ago by the Viking landers are gone. “The tapes went into vaults,” McDonough says, but when some came out, what used to be data had become a pile of iron oxide amid polymer ruins.

It’s a vanishing that makes LIS professionals gulp.

“We have been digitizing all of our pre-1640 Shakespeare quartos,” which were affordable editions of the Bard’s work available during his lifetime, Kuhn says, noting that the ultra-restricted-access originals are in good shape in the Folger’s climate-controlled vaults. With digital surrogates of the quartos stored on a network of 20-terabyte servers, even high school students now have online access to these priceless materials. Even so, Kuhn worries.

“If the sprinklers go off in the server room, we could lose the data,” he notes. In the Folger’s case, the physical books and off-site electronic copies exist. But ever more contemporary works, personal and official correspondence, scientific data, and other records are born digital and remain digital. These all are more vulnerable to complete loss than most people realize, Kuhn and McDonough say. Experts tell us to copy our digital beings to new storage media every few years, but can such compliance last for centuries?

“If that information is lost, you’ve lost the archive of what has actually happened in the modern world,” McDonough says. It would be like losing all of the printed books or handwritten letters from which so much of history has been written.

The digital ephemeralizing of culture accelerates. Last year, according to calculations by the Framingham, Mass.-based market intelligence company IDC, “the amount of information created, captured, or replicated exceeded available storage for the first time.” At the present growth rate of 60% or so, society’s annual count of new bytes generated will exceed Avogadro’s number—6.02 x 1023—in 2023.

Very smart people are working toward ensuring that our massive creation of “born digital” offspring won’t go the way of the Library of Alexandria. But Kuhn, an insider, says he doesn’t believe anyone who now claims to offer that kind of archiving assurance. Says Kuhn, “Librarians know how to keep books around for centuries, but we don’t know yet how to do that with digital stuff.”

Ivan Amato wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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