The world’s cultural treasures are being stored digitally for generations to come. But making sure these records stay intact is no easy task.January 04, 2016
But the organizations digitizing these and other parts of our heritage now face the daunting task of making sure their records can live on forever, online.
Google Vice President Vint Cerf, hailed as the father of the Internet, warned in February of the prospect of a ‘digital Dark Age’ if old records become unreadable.
"What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is," he said.
His caution preceded Islamic State’s much-publicized blowing up of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in Syria. The act prompted archeologists to gather records of other at-risk sites.
The Million Image Database, run by the Oxford Institute of Digital Archeology, aims to create online replicas of ancient monuments using 3-D camera images. The project is just one of a growing number of initiatives to store large parts of our cultural heritage in a digital format.
But the Temple of Baalshamin stood for 1900 years before eventually being demolished. What hope is there that replicas of this and other treasures can survive indefinitely in a medium that has only been around for a couple of decades?
“Their job is not to keep things, it’s to change things,” he says. “It’s transient. If you want to keep things long-term, there’s a lot of threats to the data.”
The most obvious of these is digital failure. It is almost certain, Tilbury points out, that today’s laptops will no longer work in 30 years’ time. The same applies to servers if backup is inadequate. CDs, which have an average life of 10 years, are also not up to the job.
A second problem, the one highlighted by Cerf, is that even if you are able to preserve records the format they are in may become inaccessible over time. “Digital file formats become unreadable at an alarming rate,” says Tilbury.
Purpose-built digital preservation systems overcome both challenges by copying records to a safe location, indexing the content, and either keeping copies updated in a readable format or holding a separate archive with all the relevant readers.
This in turn creates a further challenge because the levels of data involved in preservation projects can build up very rapidly.
Preservica, for example, works with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on FamilySearch, a genealogical service that has 10 petabytes of scanned high-resolution content. That is five times the information in all the academic research libraries in America.
Digital archivists deal with this by being highly selective about what goes into archives. Where so-called born-digital material (that which is created digitally in the first place) is concerned, only about one percent of potential items might make it into an archive.
And to keep costs down, archive companies store originals on low-cost storage media and make low-resolution copies available for public consumption on faster, costlier file servers. Preservica uses Amazon Glacier and Simple Storage Service (S3), respectively.
S3 is built to last, with redundancy and self-healing features. Making cultural records available on such a platform not only helps preserve them, but also potentially makes them available to a much wider audience, in a much more interactive way.
The company’s vice president of strategy and innovation, Mehdi Tayoubi, says: "These projects allow experts and those who are just curious to engage with content as a learning resource.”
Using advanced technology this way, he says: “Creates new connections to, and experiences of, our cultural heritage."
However, the question remains whether human ingenuity will allow historically significant items to live on in digital format for as long as some of them have in reality.
Given the flexibility of current technology, and the care being taken by archivists, Tilbury is optimistic. But he acknowledges there are risks attached to any form of preservation.
“The first thing we were shown when we went into The National Archives, when we got our first contract there, was the Domesday Book from 1085,” he says. “They said: ‘That’s the model.’ Will you be able to read your files in 900 years time? That wakes you up a bit.”
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