Tom Wilson on Preservation - #asist2011

ASIST 2011 kicked off with a keynote by Tom Wilson on the challenges of preservation in the digital age. What we know about the past has been preserved through a series of happenstance and contingencies. Aristotle mentions over 100 playwrights in the Rhetoric but only 4 of them have been preserved to the present day. We don’t know why these 4 survived but we suspect that they were highly valued by the people of Greece. However high value is no guarantee of preservation or destruction.

In 1972 Robin Birley discovered a cache of 1400 thin wooden tablets that contain some of the oldest examples of Latin handwriting while digging a ditch near Hadrian’s wall. The tablets survived because they were thrown in the mud and protected from exposure to oxygen. The evidence we have of the past is often pieced together from fragments that people discarded in middens, or trash heaps.

There are some lessons we can draw from these examples.

  • Physical materials can have very long lifetimes
  • Preservation is of little value if what is preserved cannot be interpreted
  • The biggest threats to preservation come from natural calamities, then man-made disasters

Current digital preservation efforts are threatened by uncertain timelines for material survivability. We may think that CDs will survive for 100 years but we don’t know because they haven’t been existence for that long. We do know that paper can survive up to 1500 years and stone carvings survive for tens of thousands of years.

The proliferation of file formats threatens the future of intelligibility of our digital artifacts. Formats used in the 1960s may not be readable by any machine present today. (For example moon images from the Apollo missions) The Domesday project in Britain recorded a wide variety of social information gathered in the 1980s on video laserdiscs that were considered the height of technological achievement at the time but are now completely forgotten and very difficult to replace. The referents of the English language also change over time. One hundred years ago occupations like backman, baller, badger, boothman, boniface, busker, owler, souter were common. Today we recognize very few.

Wilson concluded with more questions than answers but he raised some important and interesting issues about data preservation.

Are we worried about preservation because of the vast amount of information we are aware is currently being created or posted on the internet? Does information anxiety occur because we are worried about what we might lose? Why are we afraid of forgetting?

What are the social and political motivations behind digital preservation? Politicians are afraid of being condemned by future generations for failure to preserve material. But the Domesday project had no social demand for preservation? When we discover something new about the past we take pleasure and delight in the event, but we cannot condemn past politicians for failing to preserve something that we don’t know ever existed. How do we balance politics and social demands for preservation?