From stone tablets to iPads: Preserving our digital history

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Imagine it's 2,000 years from now and the Washington, DC we know is an archeological site. Perhaps we see a couple of walls of the Capitol building and some pillars from the White House, but much of it has fallen to the ravages of time. Unlike prior generations, there will be no cave paintings, tablets, scrolls, or books to give these explorers clues about how we lived because much of our history will be in unreadable digital formats.

I considered this as I traveled through Italy these past three weeks. Italy has a rich and deep past. Consider for instance, that old for the US is perhaps 300 years. The town I stayed in at the beginning of my trip, Amelia, predates ancient Rome by 300 years. That's old.

And throughout my trip, I spied ancient tablets and text that perhaps gave some clues to that deeply ancient past. When your history goes back 3000 years or more, you begin to think about historical preservation in an entirely different light.

And as I walked through the ruins of ancient Rome, I tried to picture how these buildings, now just fragments, might have been laid out, how people might have lived, but it wasn't easy based on what is left. On a tour of the Colosseum for instance, I learned a great deal about the building's history and background, but I also learned how much we don't know, such as who the architects and builders of this great stadium were, many of the details lost to time.

Further, as I meandered through the halls of the Vatican museums and saw ancient scrolls, early bibles and other artifacts, I wondered what people, far into the future, walking the halls of museums about our lives, might know about us.

Already, there are backup media from the eighties and nineties you might be hard-pressed to find any hardware on which to restore. Consider just my personal digital history, which sits on 5 1/4 floppies, 3.5 inch floppies and 100 MB Iomega Zip disks. I have current backups on a variety of USB drives. How will anyone read these when USB is just a blip in technology history? What about my cloud backups on Google, Box, and others? What will become of them in 50, 100 or 1000 years? Will these companies even exist and what will happen to their massive data centers full of the accumulated digital record of our lives?

Consider that we have in our own own family "archives," video tapes in formats, we can no longer play--the camera long gone along with the VCR and converter. And my oldest child is just 20.

Will our decedents be able to read Word 2.0 documents? Can any of us today? What about PDF? In 100 or a 1,000 years will there be a universal reader? It's a legitimate question and as we transfer more and more of our history to digital media in formats that change on a yearly basis, it raises a lot of hard questions about digital preservation--yet how many people are asking?

The time to consider this is now. We have to leave a legacy of digital preservation or risk leaving future generations wondering how we lived with very little readable documentation available to help them.

It's the ultimate content management problem, but I wonder how many people are working on a solution. - Ron