TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Digital preservation

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Digital preservation - When William the Conqueror's clerics were compiling the Domesday Book in 1085, they created a definitive work of reference that still yields valuable insights nearly a thousand years on. Contrast that with the BBC's high-tech update of the mid-80s, the Domesday Project. This huge database of regional information is far wider in scope and contains much more detail than the original book. But stored as it is on videodisc (remember these LP-sized CDs?), the Project was doomed from day one, effectively unreadable after only 15 years, as the medium it relied on became obsolete. Given the pace of change in IT and the increasing amount of information available only electronically these days, this fate is likely to be shared by many other key information sources in future.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When William the Conqueror's clerics were compiling the Domesday Book in 1085, they created a definitive work of reference that still yields valuable insights nearly a thousand years on. Contrast that with the BBC's high-tech update of the mid-80s, the Domesday Project. This huge database of regional information is far wider in scope and contains much more detail than the original book. But stored as it is on videodisc (remember these LP-sized CDs?), the Project was doomed from day one, effectively unreadable after only 15 years, as the medium it relied on became obsolete. Given the pace of change in IT and the increasing amount of information available only electronically these days, this fate is likely to be shared by many other key information sources in future.

THE CHALLENGE: Books and paper documents may be low-tech and lacking the 'rich content experience' that we're used to seeing on our PCs and via the web, but they have a signal advantage in longevity. Software (text and pictures) and hardware (the page) are combined, and require only the human eye and brain to interpret. But data-storage systems that use separate hardware and software fall victim to hardware obsolescence. The data remains viable, but no-one keeps the gadget required to read it. It's already happened to your old vinyl LP collection; it's about to happen to that box of 1.25 inch floppy discs gathering dust in your desk drawer, and no doubt CD-ROMs, DVDs and mini-discs will be next. What will you show your grandchildren when the family snaps you took with that swanky digital camera are no longer viewable? And imagine a company involved in legal action over its commercial activities 20 years ago, unable to access vital data on which the case may stand or fall.

THE SOLUTION: By and large, what's happening tomorrow is a much higher priority for everyone in the technology business than what happened yesterday. The problems aren't limited to storage media. 'Full backwards compatibility of new software with old versions is usually only maintained for three releases,' says Dr Neil Beagrie of the Digital Preservation Coalition, a pressure group formed to bring the dangers of ignoring our digital past to the attention of government and business alike. That could be as little as a couple of years. And, he points out, anything that is published on the internet relies for its continued existence on someone paying the hosting charges.

Beagrie advocates self-help for businesses, which should identify key historical data and actively manage them to maintain viability. 'If we continue to rely on accidental preservation, most of the information we have today won't be there in 30 years' time.'

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