Holding on to Your Digital Objects
by Dick Kaser
As we all painfully know by now, there are many incidents that can easily erase your digital records, delete your family memories, and prevent you from accessing your own intellectual property originally created or stored in digital form.
It happens one day: The machine where you have all your data archived refuses to turn on. The old backups are on discs that don’t fit into the slots on today’s equipment. Media files that once played beautifully won’t open, given new versions of the software, expired licenses, or DRM so effective in protecting the rights of commercial publishers, music producers, and software vendors that it prevents you from regaining access to works of your own intellectual creation.
Those who worry about the record of human achievement during the late 20th and early 21st centuries being lost as a result of digital deterioration usually note that it’s up to individual users to preserve their own digital records. But how many actually do?
Because I have tried to keep my own data archives alive, I can tell you it is not a task for the impatient because every migration often involves a great deal of tedious labor.
For example, characters permitted in file names on Macs may render the files unreadable on other machines. The iconic slash mark (/), now an ingrained part of internet address lines, is also a character often used to denote dates. I used to use it routinely in Mac file names for the purpose of version control.
The slash was also intrinsic to a file-naming convention that was used by CompuServe, a fact I also discovered during a recent file backup project. As I tried to back up an email archive that I’ve been carrying forward since the early 1990s (when I ran a fairly active discussion forum there), my attempt to simply copy the folder to an external USB drive produced the following error message:
Some of the files cannot be copied because their names are either too long or contain invalid characters for the destination drive.
Some of the files could not be copied? More precisely, about 10,000 of the files in that discussion folder could not be copied because they each contained at least one slash in their file names. I manually renamed about half of them before looking for a software tool to do the wrist-crunching work for me (see the link below).
There are a couple of points emerging from this anecdote. Above all, it’s really not about Macs versus PCs. The naming snafu I’ve noted here would be just as true for UNIX users and anyone who used a computing platform other than DOS or Windows in the past and who wanted to migrate their files to another platform now.
The point is that in a digital world, things simply don’t and won’t hold still, and that makes data preservation something that is not going to happen automatically.
That’s why I’m so amused to hear the Facebook generation say they love their Gmail accounts because “their stuff will always be there,” or the cloud storage vendors who play off our fear of losing our family photos by assuring us that remote storage equates to long-term preservation.
In computer time, saying that something digital is going to last forever is rather like speaking of dog years.
The entire challenge of digital preservation is well articulated in the current issue of Computers in Libraries (CIL) magazine, which I help edit.
According to CIL columnist Marshall Breeding, “Files should be tested for integrity as frequently as possible, copied onto new media every 3–5 years, and migrated into new formats as necessary.”
If it’s up to you to preserve your own slice of the digital past (and it is), I have only one thing to say: Get with it, stick with it, and keep coming back to it.
Your personal archive will not preserve itself. You must carry it forward, system to system, medium to medium, and age to age. And even then, it wouldn’t hurt to print out some copies on good paper and put them in a dry place.