[Videolib] archiving/obsolesense of digital material

James Scholtz (jimscholtz@sdln.net)
Wed, 12 Oct 2005 12:17:10 -0400

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Hi All, While not specifically video related, there has been some
discussion on the listserv recently regarding the archival nature or
longevity of the digital medium (CDs, DVDs, HDDVD, etc.) compared to
microform types. I heartily agree with what has been said - mainly that the
hard forms of microfilm are much more stable than the digital mediums.
Interestingly enough, when I was doing research for a past book, I spoke to
Dr. Alan Calmes, a media archivist with the National Archives about the
video format/archival issue. He actually said that, surprisingly, the media
lasted much longer than the equipment to play it on - meaning that the
Archives spent a substantial amount of time/money in upkeep of obsolete
equipment - (i.e. laserdiscs, beta, 3/4 U-matic, etc.). Anyway, I wanted to
show you that media librarians aren't the only people interested in this
cunundrum. My sister works for the NSA and received this e-mail article
discussing the problems of archiving digital material from a
machine-readable perspective. Apparently, several companies are designing
virtual computers that will be able to read various formats (i.e. rtf. doc.
pdf., etc.). All they have to do is keep the large mainframe/super
computers on line. Anyway, I just thought it might be interesting to you.
Let me know what you think about this concept - maybe we can get some
librarians to help in this archival problem.

Jim Scholtz, Library Director
Yankton Community Library
515 Walnut St.
Yankton, SD 57078
(605) 668-5276

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Dear All:
Helen Gigley (ONR) thinks the article below might be an = interesting read that could be discussed to today's = II Workshop planning meeting.
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Sep 15th 2005 =20

Computing: Could a "virtual computer", built from software, help to
save today's digital documents for historians of the future?

WHEN future historians turn their attention to the early 21st century,
electronic documents will be vital to their understanding of our times.
Old web pages may not turn yellow and brittle like paper, but the
digital documents of today's culture face a more serious threat: the
disappearance of computers able to read them. Even a relatively simple
electronic item, such as a picture, requires software to present it as
a visible image, but 100 years from now, today's computers will have
long since become obsolete. More complex items, like CD-ROMs or videos,
will be unreadable even sooner.

In 1986, for example, 900 years after the Domesday book, the BBC
launched a project to compile data about Britain, including maps, video
and text. The results were recorded on laserdiscs that could only be
read by a special system based around a BBC Micro home computer. But
since the disks were unreadable on any other system, this pioneering
example of multimedia was nearly lost for ever. It took two and a half
years of patient work with one of the few surviving machines to move
the data on to a modern PC (it can be seen online at

National libraries are just starting to grapple with this problem as
part of their new mandate to preserve digital culture. "It is a major
problem, but it is remarkable how little known it is," says Hilde van
Wijngaarden, head of digital preservation at the National Library of
the Netherlands. "People just accept that things no longer work after
ten years."

Keeping working examples of all computer hardware is impractical, so
the most popular preservation strategy is to copy files from one
generation of hardware to the next. The problem is that today's word
processors and web browsers, for example, do not always display files
in the same way that older software did. An accumulation of subtle
errors can eventually make the original item unreadable. An alternative
approach, called emulation, uses software to simulate the old hardware
on a modern computer, to allow old software to run. But today's
emulators will need another emulator to run on the next generation of
hardware, which will need another emulator for the next generation, and
so on. This can also introduce errors.

So the National Library of the Netherlands is exploring a third option,
using a simulated computer that exists only in software. It is called
the Universal Virtual Computer (UVC) and is being developed by IBM, a
computer giant. The researchers are writing programs to run on this
virtual computer that decode different document formats. Future
libraries will have to write software that emulates the virtual
computer on each new generation of computer systems. But once that is
done, they will be able to view all their stored documents using the
decoders written for the virtual computer, which only have to be
written once. "The decoder can be tested for correctness today, while
the format is still readable," says Raymond van Diessen of IBM.

His team has written decoders for two common image formats, JPEG and
GIF. They plan to move on to Adobe's PDF format. IBM is also talking to
drug firms, which are required to store data from clinical trials for
long periods. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to preserve anything
from simple web pages to complex data sets. Ominously, some scientific
data from the 1970s has already crumbled into unreadable digital bits.=20

[1] http://www.domesday1986.com

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