A little, according to the experts. On the one hand, what we think is permanent is not. Digital storage systems can become unreadable in as little as three to five years. Librarians and archivists race to copy things into newer formats. But entropy is always there, waiting in the wings. “Our professions and our people often try to extend normal life as much as possible through a variety of techniques, but it’s still stemming the tide,” says Joseph Janes, associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Information. .
To complicate matters, archivists now face an unprecedented deluge of information. In the past, materials were scarce and storage space limited. “Now we have the opposite problem,” says Janes. “Everything is being recorded all the time.”
In principle, this could right a historical wrong. For centuries, countless people lacked the right culture, gender, or socioeconomic class to have their knowledge or work discovered, valued, or preserved. But the massive scale of the digital world now presents a unique challenge. According to an estimate last year by market research firm IDC, the amount of data created by businesses, governments and individuals in the coming years will be twice the total of all digital data previously generated since the beginning of the computer age.
Entire schools of some universities are working to find better approaches to save data under their umbrella. The Center for Humanities Data and Services at the University of Basel, for example, has been developing a software platform called Knora to not only archive the many types of data from humanities work, but also to ensure that people in the future can read and use them. And yet the process is fraught.
“We can’t save everything … but that’s no reason not to do what we can.”
“You make educated guesses and hope for the best, but there are data sets that are lost because no one knew they would be useful,” says Andrea Ogier, assistant dean and director of data services at Virginia Tech University Libraries.
There are never enough people or money to do all the work needed, and formats are constantly changing and multiplying. “How can we better allocate resources to preserve things? Because the budgets are so big,” says Janes. “In some cases, that means things are saved or stored, but they’re just there, uncatalogued and unprocessed, and therefore almost impossible to find or access.” In some cases, archivists ultimately reject new collections.
The formats used to store data are themselves impermanent. NASA collected about 170 tapes of lunar dust data, collected during the Apollo era. When researchers set out to use the tapes in the mid-2000s, they couldn’t find anyone with the 1960s IBM 729 Mark 5 machine needed to read them. With help, the team eventually located one in disrepair in the Australian Computer Museum’s warehouse. Volunteers helped refurbish the machine.
Software also has a useful life. Ogier recalls trying to examine an old Quattro Pro spreadsheet file only to find that there was no software available that could read it.