Menachem Mendel

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Digital Extinction

Many of us have hard drives filled with articles and books in digital format, sometimes never having to leave the comfort of our computer to search through those antiquated “stacks” in libraries for that sought-after book or journal article (see this related post at Seforim). But how many of us have thought of what is going to happen to these digital documents in 10 or 15 years? The New York Time’s recently had an article which spoke about “digital extinction”. While the context was the preservation of movies preserved in digital format, I think that some of the issues raised are relevant to articles and books that are in digital format. The two most important issues are the actual preservation of the medium on which the digital document is stored, and the ability to read that medium (Another issue is cost, older 35 mm movies are much cheaper to store than digital ones). Even the cheapest book on acidic probably has a longer life than any hard drive in use today. The assumed life expectancy of the numerous CD and DVD formats varies, ranges from only a few to as many as 200 years, but that would require that we constantly transfer or our digital data to these types of media as we continue to accumate it. In addition, this would require that in 25 years we would actually have the ability to read the digital information, that the digital format would not be obsolete. The “migration” of digital information from one format to another has been recognized as one of the formidable obstacles in the digital information age. Thankfully, with some exceptions, so many of the formats of media storage used in the past, from stele through to the printed book, both still exist and are readable today. I don’t think that fifty years ago most people could have imagined the technology that all of us use today in our daily lives, so who knows what will be in the future.

4 Responses to “Digital Extinction”

  1. 1
    Jeff:

    You make a good point. But even now much of our work is no longer available to us. How many of us (of a cetain age) had grad school papers on some extinct computer program? I did all my master’s works on Multi-Lingual Scholar on 5 1/4″ floppies on an original PC with no hard drive. (And my college papers were typed, with all Hebrew hand-written.)
    Before Microsoft became Hebrew-friendly, I went through a slew of English-Hebrew programs. Luckily, most of the Windows-based ones allowed me to convert to Word with little trouble, but I lost a good deal of my DOS material, languishing on dying floppies.

  2. 2
    Menachem Butler:

    great post. i think that my 300GB external harddrive can last for another… year or two; until it dies and I’ll have to purchase a new one!!

  3. 3
    ephraim:

    There was a piece in the National Post (Canada)last week on the difficulties faced by the many provincial archives in preserving data stored in obsolete electronic formats. It sounds like a serious issue.

  4. 4
    Menachem Mendel:

    A year or so ago I finally realized that all of our old floppies were pretty useless and just threw them out. One of the big problems is that libraries are digitizing certain material and then throwing out the original.

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