Digital archive dates too fast

July 5, 2002

Universities and research bodies are being warned that they risk losing vast amounts of digital information unless new techniques are developed to conserve it. The key problems are obsolescent technology and the ephemeral nature of the internet and websites.

"A tremendous amount of information and academic course materials are made available on the net," Neil Beagrie, programme director for the Joint Information Systems Committee of the higher and further education funding councils, said.

"A lot of debates and academic communication take place there too, but the internet is ephemeral and websites change. How do you archive that?"

Another problem is obsolescence. "If it's in paper form it can sit in somebody's attic for 15 years and, as long as the mice don't eat it, it can be read and used," Mr Beagrie said. "But with digital format, you'd have difficulty even being able to open the archive after 15 years."

In an attempt to address these challenges, Jisc has joined with other bodies, including the Public Record Office and the Consortium of University Research Libraries, to form the Digital Preservation Coalition.

Unesco, the cultural wing of the United Nations, is also supporting research by attempting to define a standard to guide governments'

preservation endeavours in the digital age.

Spectacular victims of the problem include the 1986 computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book, with its 250,000 place names and 25,000 maps. Today it is almost unreadable as the 12-inch video discs are obsolete. To try to rescue the project, Jisc has joined forces with the National Science Foundation in the US to develop an "emulator" package that will be compatible with the data.

The Hubble telescope is also causing astronomers headaches, with more research being carried out on the archive of Hubble's images than on its live experiments.

Nasa has also had its problems; the US space agency recently found that 25-year-old computer tapes that the Viking probes had sent back from Mars in the mid-1970s were in a format that could not be read.

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