Preserving the Past: Into the Future with Terry Sanders

Pillarisetti Sudhir, April 1998

When ancient lithographers chiseled with lapidary skill their masters' voices into stone, they knew that their work would endure. When cloistered monks incised their illuminated uncials and italics into parchment, they too knew that the marks of civilization they were inscribing were designed to last. Even the coming of the printed book and the paperback did not presage the death of the durable text. Today, however, as digital magic converts words and pictures into electronic texts that can be disseminated at the speed of light, the question that has begun to loom large is: How long will these new cybertexts last? Each step in the technology of textual reproduction has made access to knowledge more democratic and universal. Now access is virtually universal, or soon will be; but will these easily retrievable texts be available in the future? This is the critical question posed by Into the Future: On the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age, the significant new documentary film by Terry Sanders that was recently shown on PBS.1

The 56-minute film was commissioned—like Sanders's 1987 film, Slow Fires: On the Preservation of the Human Record—by the Commission on Preservation and Access, which recently merged with the Council on Library Resources to become the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), in association with the American Council of Learned Societies. It was produced by the American Film Foundation and was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Xerox Corporation.

In its many dramatic images, Into the Future visually reiterates the questions confronting librarians and scholars about the ways in which production, reproduction, and preservation of knowledge and information are being radically transformed in the digital age.

One of the more curious ironies of this electronic age is that, as Paul Conway, head of the preservation department at the Yale University library, pointed out, "Our capacity to record information has increased exponentially over time while the longevity of the media used to store the information has decreased equivalently."2 Archivists and librarians always had to contend with various frailties of the material in their care. Papyrus and paper, parchment and film, are all vulnerable to the ravages of time, and precious information can be lost to decay and destruction.

Perhaps it was not entirely a coincidence that Sanders began Into the Future with a dramatic shot of flames engulfing the library at Sarajevo caught in the crossfire of the new Balkan wars. Paper, too, is susceptible to destruction by willful human action, the film suggests in that sequence which also serves as a segue from the earlier Slow Fires. (Coincidentally, Sanders had earlier made a film biography of Ray Bradbury who frighteningly reminded us, in Fahrenheit 451, about the vulnerabilities of paper.) But Into the Future goes on to show that the new media to which we seem to turn more and more as the best way to preserve our historic heritage are even more vulnerable. And as the voice-over tells us, the very "survival of collective human knowledge" is at stake. Digital librarians are now discovering, for example, that magnetic tape begins to deteriorate after a mere 30 years. According to the film, this would mean the loss, for example, of rich oral history data about the Navajo people, which had been collected on audio and video tape. Technology in the form of television had already undermined the oral historical traditions of the Navajo; the problems posed by corruption of electronic data further complicates the reconstruction of Navajo history. The filmmaker seems to delight in pointing out the irony in the fact that the ancient, pretechnological petroglyphs of the Navajo still endure today.

We also see scientists at the Planetary Data Systems division of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) lamenting the loss of data from several space missions because nearly 10 to 20 percent of the tapes have errors in them. They point out that collecting data was seen as a priority, and not much thought was given to saving it for future. Shots of miles of degrading magnetic tape containing important NASA data from the Voyager missions visually reinforce this point. The general public may not see the loss of NASA data or oral historical texts as a life and death issue. Sanders stresses the more immediate dangers inherent in the loss of electronic data in a sequence that points out how the locations of hazardous waste storage are recorded precisely in such corruptible and deteriorating electronic media. Loss of such data would mean that the necessary information about these dangerous areas cannot be recovered.

Even more insidious than such deterioration of the media is the problem of obsolescence in retrieval and playback technologies, as Margaret Hedstrom, associate professor in the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan, points out in her essay, "Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries."3 She emphatically restates this point in the film.

This is the paradox inherent in digital preservation. Records have become more widely accessible in a digitized form, but there is no certainty that the digital texts can continue to be read as technology evolves by quantum jumps. The film shows how the voluminous records of the Seville archives (made famous by the studies of Pierre Chaunu, among others) can now be accessed in digital form from anywhere, even as they are protected from destruction. But it also shows how electronic reading devices are becoming obsolete. In one striking sequence, Sanders shows older computers being ripped apart as junk, underscoring the rapid obsolescence of the hardware, without which even well-preserved recording media must remain as indecipherable as Egyptian hieroglyphics before the Rosetta stone. In fact, the scientists at JPL had to search for, find, and build tape heads to read the data on their tapes. A producer at the Voyager Company, a leading electronic publisher, underlines this, declaring, "I can't imagine that anything we are making today will be available 25 years from now. In fact, a lot of stuff that we made even seven or eight years ago can't be played." To preserve digital records, therefore, archivists are having to adopt new methods. For example, at the National Archives, as the film depicts, electronic material is transferred to new media that are currently usable, but this creates new burdens. Indeed, Deanna Marcum, CLIR president, who appears in the film, argues that money is being diverted from traditional preservation projects to digital forms without much thought being given to how these newer information storage media will be preserved.

Preserving information in the new media is not simply a problem of the hardware and software, the film emphasizes. Other, more complex challenges are posed as well. As Jeff Rothenberg, senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, asks on screen, "Where do you draw the boundary of a [web] document?" What does it mean to preserve a document on the web that has multiple links and references to other web documents? Does it mean preserving all the links and the documents they are linked to?

Not surprisingly, there is a subtly alarmist thread running through Into the Future. The images, the hand-held camera shots, the occasional resort to a cinema verité style, the voice-over (narrated, incidentally, in the measured cadences of Robert MacNeil), the interviews, and the editing all contribute to a feeling of unease with the present fascination with electronic recording. After all, the film was commissioned by a body acutely concerned by the possibility that in the headlong rush to digitize the past we may get into a technological labyrinth from which there is no escape. As Terry Sanders told Perspectives in a telephone interview, he entered the project with a skeptical mind and was persuaded by his explorations that there was a real danger. He discovered that futurists like Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates, enamored as they are with digital technology, gave little attention to the problems of preservation. The word "preservation" does not appear, Sanders declared, in Gates's influential book, The Road Ahead.

The film does present the other side of the debate, however. Peter Lyman of the University of California at Berkeley points out that the new technologies are changing the ways in which we learn, and he sees nothing wrong with that. Paul LeClerc of the New York Public Library, standing in front of a sea of computer terminals, tells us that although 90 percent of the library's users want electronic texts, more than two-thirds also want hard copies. John Seely Brown of the Xerox Corporation underscores this, declaring that only certain types of documents will be digitized, not all documents. Reference books, for instance, can and will be digitized; but, Brown tells us, the paperback read for pleasure at the beach will never be turned into an electronic text.

In what can only be a deliberately self-reflexive statement, Into the Future makes a final, deliciously ironic reference to the problems facing the modern scribe, informing the viewer in an especially prominent credit line at the end that the film was shot with a Sony DVW-700 Betacam, a digital recording device, and that it was digitally edited. The soundtrack, of course, is digital too.


1. The film was first shown on January 13, 1998.

2. See his report "Preservation in the Digital World," written for the CLIR. Text at

3. Online text of the essay is available at