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High-Tech Times Article 028

Will Our History Vanish?

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. As I sit here early in the year 2000, happy in large part that I made it, my thoughts have turned to how quickly everything is evolving. Especially in the technology arena, what is new, state-of-the-art, and cutting-edge is almost instantly superseded by something even newer, faster, and sexier. This evolution is, of course, one reason why my company has been able to stay in business since 1974, but what we are doing at CATI today has very little resemblance to our tasks a short 25 years ago.

This difference was shoved in my face a few days before Christmas when a retired Stanford professor visited my office with a small but urgent task. He walked in clasping a diskette full of very important data from a NASA project he had completed in 1984, and asked me to burn it onto a CD-ROM so that he could share this hands-on history with his grandkids. His face turned more than slightly red when I told him that I couldn’t do what he asked, as his data were stored on an eight-inch floppy-disk from a then cutting-edge IBM mainframe computer. And in fact I wasn’t able to even recommend anyone who could read and transfer his data....

So I began thinking about how many different forms of digital media I’ve used since I entered the professional world just three short decades ago. My first thought was personal rather than technical, as I have many hours of Super-8 film of my three kids (the oldest of whom just turned 30). Frankly, I have no idea where I would locate a film projector these days that could play back, let along digitize, these family treasures, so these assets have become essentially worthless.

A quick search on the Web showed that the Stanford professor and I are not the only ones who are having these problems. Librarians and archivists warn that we are losing vast amounts of valuable scientific and historical data due to obsolescence or complete disintegration! For many years, scientists have claimed that the “1s” and “0s” of binary digital data would be available forever -- but they lied!

Looking back over a few boxes from my own career, I found some paper-punched tapes, key-punch cards, computer mag tapes, and at least seven different tape cartridge formats for which I have no suitable reader. A quick call to my NASA friends at JPL revealed that they have already lost up to 20 percent of the data collected during the 1976 Viking mission to Mars due to similar problems. And libraries around the world have huge databases that can only be accessed on computer systems that are no longer sold or serviced.

Tests by the National Media Lab, a Minnesota‑based government and industry consortium, have found that magnetic tapes might last only a decade, depending on storage conditions. The fate of floppy-disks, videotape, and hard-drives is just as bleak. Even the CD‑ROM, once touted as indestructible, is proving vulnerable to stray magnetic fields, oxidation, humidity, and material decay.  “The more technologically advanced we get, the more fragile we become,” stated Abby Smith of the Council on Library and Information Resources in a rcent report to Congress.

And many of the hardware and software configurations needed to tease intelligible information from preserved disks and tapes are disappearing in the name of progress. Archivists are in the process of resurrecting the 1948 whistle‑stop oratory of President Harry Truman: the “give‑'em‑hell speeches” were recorded on spools of thin steel wire, a predecessor of reel‑to‑reel tape recordings. Though some of the wires have rusted and snap during playback, these specialists are busy digitizing what they're able to recover onto more stable modern media.

Unfortunately, even data migration isn’t a perfect solution. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration said that some pharmaceutical companies were finding errors as they transferred drug‑testing data from Unix to Windows NT systems. In some instances, the errors resulted in blood‑pressure numbers that were randomly off by up to eight digits. We may need local museums of video and tape players, as well as the computers and software that run them, just to maintain today’s current data!

I’m sure that this info will make some of our local printing companies very happy. As I’ve been told a number of times, “Print is permanent!” But go tell that to the thousands of librarians who are agonizing over the mass disintegration of millions of older books, magazines, and newspapers whose high acid content is turning their paper yellow and brittle. The New York Public Library system estimates that it has more than 5,000,000 books and periodicals that are too fragile to handle. Their researchers literally had the materials fall apart in their hands as they were turning pages!

Virtually all the books printed between 1850 - when machine-made paper went on the market - and 1953 - when acid-free paper became a printing option - will continue to self-destruct. There are also questions about the long-term stability of the inks we use today to create digitally-printed books and periodicals. As production shifts from well-known and stable offset inks to toners and inkjets, will these printed materials fade, smudge, or disappear even before the paper ages?

So should we bet on the floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, Zip and Jaz cartridges, DAT tapes, and other media? The latest information says that we really can’t depend on any existing medium for data storage. There are no easy answers to these questions. Probably a good start is to separate the historical from the inconsequential, and then save onto the simplest format. No, that’s not much help, but we’ve all got the same problem here....

See you next month.