Digital Records May Start to 'Obscure the Past'

Historical records may be lost if put in a digital format, because of the rapid advancement in computer technology. In the BBC Sunday News was an article explaining that while newer technology is is faster, it may not be as long lasting as records done in the past. Vellum is still the preferred material to record important documents in the UK.

Digital Records

I'm not sure I want to store memos on vellum in file drawers, but for important stuff, I'd agree that hardcopy might be better. And that's not just because I'm a librarian. :-)

Re: Digital Records and Open File Formats

The other relevant point here is that readable is not the same as comprehensible. Digital media also have the problem of data file format. Even if you can read the bits off the disk a century from now, the file formats will almost certainly be obsolete.

The question, then, becomes how to ensure that a format that is obsolete is not indecipherable as well. For example, HTML may not be used twenty years hence, but it is so widely documented that no one will have trouble figuring out how to read it.

Proprietary formats for most commercial software, however, are not documented in any public place. The companies that make the software consider this to be a "trade secret" because they don't want competitors being able to enter the marketplace for an established product. If your software is the new kid on the proverbial block, you need to be able to read and write the current de facto standard format in that market; hence, there is a vested interest by the current market leader to prevent that.

Open Source software doesn't have this problem. The source code is like a blueprint for the program, and intrinsically can be used as a kind of Rosetta Stone to figure out the file formats. This being the case, most Open Source software also has published documentation of its file formats -- or, the software is written to use file formats that are already available publicly, since there is no commercial incentive to do otherwise.

In the year 2500 CE, it's very likely that today's web documents and PDF files will still be decipherable, assuming the media containing the files are still readable. Documents in formats such as MS Word, ABC Flowcharter, PhotoGraphics, and other undocumented file structures are very likely to be lost unless they are translated.

Proprietary software will be to our progeny what flimsy physical media are to us now. Within the SCA, we should be thinking about these issues with regard to Kingdom archives and official record-keeping in any office.

I'm not a librarian, but I am a computer professional and I worked for a time on a project where we needed 50 years guaranteed data retention. File format was very much on our minds in that context.