Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Will We Do Digital Archeology?

The Sumerians wrote on clay tablets. The egyptians put hieroglyphs on stone and papyrus. What ancient people put on stone and clay has a chance of lasting through the ages. We've even stumbled across helpful bits of stone that help us translate between languages.

In the digital age things are much harder. It's hard enough to access a document created in some now obsolete program. It's a matter of digital preservation and fighting digital obsolescence.

Still not convinced it's a problem to preserve digital information for the future? How about this simple question... can you still buy a computer with a floppy disk drive? And what type of floppy disk drive? The 3.5 inch ones in the hard cases or the older 5.25 inch disks? What about the 8 inch floppies?

It's a much bigger problem than just a few different sizes of floppy disks. Take a glance at some of the ways we stored digital data at the Lost Formats Preservation Society page. Glancing over the monochrome outlines of old storage technology it makes you wonder how many digital documents have already been irretrievably lost.

Of course you could also play the geek cred game of working through the list and finding out how many of those formats you've used at one time or another. My LFPS number is 18. If I include a couple of formats that aren't on the LFPS page I'm up to 20.

And the LFPS list doesn't include any type of internal hard disks. They only cover portable media. But old hard drives are lost formats as well. Disks that I pulled from original IBM PCs can't be plugged into any new computer. The number of different hard drive types is staggering.

The more I try and wrap my mind around digital preservation the more I think it will be easier for archeologists in the centuries to come to know about the early 1900s than it will for them to dig into the details of the early twenty first century.


Unknown said...

Unknown said...

Just followed the link to the Rosetta Stone. This was one of my favorite pieces at the British Museum.

Unknown said...

I have used 27 on that list plus a few that were not. Scary!

David G said...


Thanks for the reminder about the project to recover the lunar tapes. Completely escaped my mind. An impressive effort to get the data off the tapes. And that in 1967 they had tapes that stored 49GBs worth of data is very impressive.

I've never seen the actual Rosetta Stone. It is impressive on many levels. Not many artifacts have as much history as it does. It records a historic event, there's the entire history of the finding of the stone itself, and of course there is the history of the stone as key to hieroglyphics. (Or at least the first key). Amazing. I understand why people buy desk sized reproductions to keep around.

As for the number of items from the list you've used... what's scary isn't that us old techies have used so many of the formats.

What's scary is that we still have so many of them in our possession and we don't want to get rid of them. After all I'm sure I'll use those floppy disks again someday.