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V12 2009 INDEX       E-SYLUM ARCHIVE

The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 15, April 12, 2009, Article 14

THE DIGITAL DILEMMA

Harry Waterson submitted these thoughts on the preservation of digital media such as the new NeoCollect web site. -Editor
David Levy brings up an interesting point that “people would not like to lose all this time if the site (NeoCollect) won’t last for any reason”. This actually is just part of a much bigger problem. I am sure NeoCollect can deal with the issues of keeping their site up and accessible for its users. The bigger problem is long-term digital storage. A book can live on a shelf for a hundred to a thousand years and be immediately retrievable and readable by a user. Digital media has a shelf life of five years.

The book on the shelf requires no page riffling to keep it readable. Hard Drives are designed to be “powered on and spinning”. They cannot just be stored on a shelf for long periods of time. They need to be played occasionally to keep their lubrication across the data-recording surface.

The current state of the art for digital archiving requires migration every five to seven years and constant file/hard disc maintenance in the interim. Migration involves the transfer of data from old physical media to new physical media, a process that often includes updating file formats for currency with the latest generation operating system and/or software applications. Books and 35mm film can usually be stored and ignored for 50 to 100 years with little harm.

I am truly amazed how often E-sylum readers are dealing with texts from the 16th to the 19th century. Imagine the difficulty the 24th century numismatist would face trying to access Mr. Levy’s Mughal and Durrani coins on a 21st century NeoCollect. Here is an access story bibliophiles might relate to:

The BBC Domesday Project was a pair of interactive videodiscs made by the BBC in London to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book. It was one of the major interactive projects of its time, involving the work of 60 BBC Staff, a budget of two million pounds and the volunteer efforts of thousands of British schoolchildren and teachers.

The modern Domesday contained text, photographs, video, maps and data and a controlling computer program to bind it all together. The final package was published on two custom-designed laser disks with the special controlling software designed for the BBC Micro, a popular microcomputer. This software program was composed of 70,000 lines of custom code written in BCPL, a forerunner of the widely used C programming language.

Within 15 years, it was impossible to use the “digital” Domesday, as compared to the original Domesday Book, which was handwritten, probably by a single monk in 1086 and which is still readable (in Latin) if one goes to the UK National Archives, where it has been preserved.

However, in 2002, a research project by the University of Leeds and the University of Michigan managed to successfully emulate the original BBC system using modern hardware and software, one of the pioneering efforts in digital “archeology” that enabled continuing access to old, nearly “extinct” digital media assets.

Other than personal opinions, most of the material cited above came from: The Digital Dilemma, Strategic Issues in Archiving and Accessing Digital Motional Picture Materials; Milt Shefter and Andy Maltz, the Science and Technology Council, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy Imprints, Beverly Hills, CA 2007. This is a study that really asks more questions than gives answers.

The fascinating thing about the study is that it examines not only the struggles of the motion picture industry but also the federal government, the Library of Congress, Oil Exploration Companies, National Archives and Records Administration, the Dept. of Defense, the Medical Profession and HIPPA, The Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science, and the National Satellite Land Remote Sensing Data Archive.

What I got out of all this is if I write a book, and I want to be sure future generations can read it, I better publish some hard copies and give them to libraries whose mission is the preservation of numismatic material.



Wayne Homren, Editor

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To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address: whomren@gmail.com

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