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Lost Memory
By Jon Gordon
August 9, 1999
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Computers have helped society create and publish an ocean of information. But much of that data is in danger of going down the drain. Some people say our inability to save digital information could be a problem that's with us long after the Y2K bug is a distant memory.

FILMMAKER TERRY SANDERS recent PBS documentary "Into the Future" sounded an alarm about the potential for losing our collective digital memory.

Sanders says he's more worried about this computer problem than that other one.
Sanders: It's not limited to one moment in time like Y2K is. It's less dramatic, but more insidious. It's more quiet, it's a more silent loss. One day more and more will disappear invisibly until we realize it's hopelessly gone.
One casualty could be Sanders' film itself, which he shot on digital cameras and put together on computers.

There are two major problems with saving electronic records. The first is one of resources - it costs a lot of money, and no one seems to be giving archivists big budgets. As Minnesota state archivist, Robert Horton's job is to identify, collect and preserve historically significant records, and make them available to the public. Lately his department has expanded its electronic records program, and has been archiving material from Governor Jesse Ventura's web site. But Horton says he's pessimistic about saving most important government electronic records.
Horton: Agencies have in the last 10 or 20 years rushed into information technology, government entities have - without archives being able to keep up. Electronic records undoubtedly have been lost, because of the difference in the amount of money going into the production of them, and the amount of money going into the preservation of them.
The other problem is this: there really is no way to save computer files permanently; and herein lies a great irony: as we get more efficient at creating information, we're increasingly lousy at saving it. Abby Smith is program director for the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington, DC.
Smith: The most technologically advanced form of communication is also the most fragile. Old fashioned paper is far more durable than electronic files and of course clay tablets and stone are the most durable of all.
The information most at risk is that which is created on computers, with no pre-existing hard copies. These days, federal agencies are under a paper-saving mandate to conduct 75 percent of their business by computer.

Ken Thibodeau runs the electronic records program for the National Archives and Records Administration.
Thibodeau: There are no proven solutions anywhere in the world for preserving most kinds of things people are creating on computers today. The only safe assumption you can make about most of the electronic records being generated anywhere is that they're going to become obsolete in a matter of a few years, and within a relatively short number of a years (short from an archival perspective) they will so obsolete that there's no way to get to them.
You'd think that because computers make it easy to produce perfect copies, they would be a preservationist's dream. But the stuff doesn't last. Unlike paper or film, you can't just shine a little light on the object to see what's there. You need software to decode the bits, but software becomes outdated and hard to find. So does computer hardware. And the media that carry the bits - diskettes, CD's, hard drives and tapes - can deteriorate within five or 10 years.

So what are we at risk of losing? Certainly much of what we produce is eminently disposable. But much of it is critical - from personal history to the records of American government that are crucial to the preservation of democracy. Jeff Rothenberg is a senior Scientist at the Rand Corporation, a prominent think tank.
Rothenberg: The greatest dangers are in the areas of scientific information, things like toxic waste information. You would like to know if 50 years, or even a thousand years, things like "Where did we bury the plutonium?"
Heroic data-recovery efforts in the last few years saved records from early NASA space missions, and the 1960s census. Rothenberg says so far, we've been lucky.
Rothenberg: I think we're at a state where there is a lot or risk, but no real disasters yet. Maybe we're awaiting the first serious disaster before people take this seriously.
What else could happen if we don't figure out a way to preserve computer records? We could lose scientific data like research on the El Nino weather phenomenon; or historically significant records of the Clinton administration; or electronic documents that trace the history of the Internet.

So what can be done to avoid these problems? One stopgap solution is called 'migration.' That's the practice of converting and translating records from an aging format before the old software and hardware disappears. But each time you convert, you introduce errors. Preservation, then, is the key. Rothenberg says the most promising technology is "emulation" a process in which software makes new machines work like old machines so that the original files and programs can be accessed.