Letters to the Editor

Preservation into the Future

Andrew D. Todd and Terry Sanders, November 1998

To the Editor:

I found "Preserving the Past: Into the Future with Terry Sanders" (April 1998) to be excessively one-sided. The virtue of digital media is that it can easily be copied, ad infinitum, at whatever frequency is necessary to keep ahead of its deterioration. Further, this copying can be automated, so that it goes forward without significant human labor or expense once the system is fully set up.

Since the capacity of media increases over time, volumes can be consolidated, lumped together, and perhaps eventually gotten to the point where they can be published outright. For example, an antediluvian magnetic tape typically only holds about 50 Megabytes. Thirteen tapes will go on a CD-ROM, and more than three hundred tapes will go into a "CD wallet" the size of a book. Bear in mind too that the CD-ROM at only 650 megabytes is about to be superseded by Digital Versatile Disks, with a capacity up to 17 gigabytes. A DVD-based jukebox would therefore hold 68,000 tapes, or something over a mile of shelving.

A reference is made to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's deteriorating magnetic tapes as an example of electronic media's vulnerability. Nonsense. JPL allowed its tapes to deteriorate because it was much more interested in getting back into space to get more and better data. When scientists draw a line in the sand, it will not be on behalf of mere records, but rather on behalf of a threatened ecosystem or something like that.

One of the questions raised is, "Does [preserving a Web document] mean preserving all the links and the documents they are linked to?" Precisely so! It does indeed! All that is required is to make minor modifications to one of the popular Web search engines and add sufficient storage, and you can create a "Permanent Automatic Deposit Library and Archive of the Web." A defensible cost estimate for doing so might run in the neighborhood of a million dollars. Given this comparatively trifling sum, one must presume that at least one intelligence agency has already set up a Web archive, acting in the tradition of Robert Darnton's 18th-century police inspector (referred to in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes of French Cultural History).

Let us be brutally frank. Many historians hate and fear technology in general, and have in fact gone into history to avoid it. But now the monster is slithering in after them. Such historians tend to concoct quite specious arguments, based on very little knowledge, as a means of holding reality at bay. These historians seize upon solvable minor problems, which they are generally not competent to critique, and elevate these problems to the status of tragic flaws.

—Andrew D. Todd, West Virginia University
(graduate student in history, and, let it be confessed, a sometime engineer)

Terry Sanders Responds:

As the writer-producer-director of Into the Future, I agree with Andrew Todd that the film is somewhat "one-sided." After all, its purpose is to sound an alarm and raise public awareness of the very real threat that unless we start solving the problem of long-term digital preservation, we are going to lose much, if not most, of our collective memory.

Of the huge, vastly growing human record, Peter Norton, founder of Norton Utilities, pointedly asks in the film, "Who has the time, who has the energy, who has the resources to keep looking back and seeing if old information, still useful, is being transformed to the new media before the old media are essentially unusable?"

Awareness of the problem is obviously the first and most important step. For while there are hundreds of television programs, videos, books, magazines, and newspaper articles that enthusiastically extol the virtues and miracles of the digital information age, there are almost none that address the problem of long-term digital preservation. Two best-selling books, Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital and Bill Gates's The Road Ahead, contain not a single word about preservation.

Todd refers to "antediluvian magnetic tape" and compares it to more contemporary CD-ROMs and DVDs which have far more storage capacity. But the point he seems to be missing is that the bright and shining new media he currently admires will be equally antediluvian 20 or 30 years from now—and unreadable.

Todd seems to have a great deal of confidence that digital records will be faithfully and reliably migrated to each new format as it comes along. Would that this were so, but I wouldn't count on it.

In making Into the Future, I have often felt like someone on the deck of the Titanic who sees the approaching iceberg and runs down to the grand ballroom to warn everybody. Most of the passengers don't want to hear about an iceberg. They'd rather keep on dancing. Finally, when someone in the crowd grudgingly accepts the possibility of an iceberg, they confidently assure everyone that there's really nothing to worry about; the Titanic's crew has everything under control.

—Terry Sanders
American Film Foundation