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How to archive a digital file: Print it

April 14, 2015

[Note to reader (and I will repeat this in the third paragraph): I am not a techno-phobe. I love computers.]

What’s the best way to archive a digital document? Print it.

Yes, you heard me right. Print it onto paper, put it between two cardboard covers, and send it out to a hundred of your friends. It is my opinion that in one hundred years it will be easier to find a physical copy of your document than it will be to find a digital copy.

And I’m no techno-phobe. I love computers and our “digital environment”. But in the past two years, after participating in discussions concerning the archiving of digital materials, I have come to the conclusion that we are living in a digitally naïve age.

For those of us old enough to remember life in the pre-digital age (let’s just arbitrarily say pre-1985), we can’t help but marvel at how easy it is to create, to disseminate, and to store digital resources. All of that is much easier except for one thing: storage. The ease of digital storage is an illusion.

I know that your IT personnel may look like normal human beings, but they’re actually the Wizards of Oz. They lurk behind the curtain where they create the theater of “easy” digital interplay. They are indirectly and unconsciously responsible for our delusion that digital storage is easy. Their materials are powerful, and they create a nice spectacle. But they’re working hard so that you can read, and re-read a year later, your email every day. When we really think about it, I’m sure that most of us would concede that the IT department works really hard to make our needs for digital storage easy.

So let’s up the ante. Not only do we want to re-read our email next year, we want that email to be readable one hundred years from now. How hard is that?

No one knows. We haven’t experienced a century of digital artifacts yet. As a comparison, we do know that book-making technology (we’re talking physical, “real”, books here, ones that you can hold in your hand and put on a shelf) creates objects that can last millennia. As soon as they are printed and bound by the publisher, “real” books don’t need much help from humans for them to exist and to be read for hundreds of years. Digital files, on the other hand, are not like that.

Digital files are not “final products”. Digital files require an intermediary to be seen. They are like negatives in film photography (I apologize to my younger colleagues for referring, yet again, to the pre-digital age). Film negatives hold all the information of a photograph: Lightness/darkness, colors, lines, etc. But they are not the final product; they are not the photograph that will hang on the wall of a gallery. A photograph must be printed from the negative. A digital file is akin to a film negative. It requires the following components in order to be rendered in its final form:

1- A software application that recognizes the digital file type;

2- An operating system that allows the software application (see #1 above) to run;

3- A machine that the operating system (see #2 above) can recognize through the use of software drivers

4- A monitor in the computer (see #3 above) to display the file;

5- Although we tend to assume it, we should also point out that electricity is needed to make all of the above steps happen. (You don’t need electricity to make, print, and look at photographs and books.)

That is quite a bit of stuff to retain in order to access the information encased in a digital file. In a commentary for American Scientist in 1998, Brian Hayes likened digital files to computer programs:

“When you sit at the keyboard, you may think you’re writing or drawing or balancing the budget, but what you’re doing is creating computer programs, which have to be compiled and run before they yield their output of text or art or spreadsheet. You may think you’re just a content provider, but you’re really a programmer.” (Hayes, 1998, p. 415)

In our digitally naïve state, we don’t think about digital files in this way. We tend to think that digital files are “the thing itself” rather than being a precursor encased in an electronic container that requires keys to be opened.

Recapitulation: When we say that we are archiving “digital files”, we think that we’re saving the final product. Unfortunately, saving the digital file is only one component for archival storage. We also need to archive the digital environment that allows the digital file to live and to be seen. And, of course, you need electricity as well, which may be hard to come by after the zombie apocalypse.

Once you have satisfied all these needs, only then can you assert that you have performed due diligence as a digital archivist. [Except that we still haven’t talked about “bit rot” (yes, digital resources can rot), but I’ll leave that topic for later.]

So if you want to archive the information encased in a digital file for readers a hundred years from now: print it.

 

Citation

Hayes, B. (1998). Computing Science: Bit Rot. American Scientist, 86(5), 410–415.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2015 1:50 pm

    Nathan – the title of this post really made me grin. As someone with a background in digital collections and digital preservation, “print it” is the answer that I used to give people all the time. In addition to all the steps you list above, there are even more to truly preserve a digital file – things like generating checksums to document authenticity of a digital document (and to monitor for bitrot). The archival community is trying hard to figure out the best ways to preserve digital content, but it is absolutely true that without electricity, software, and an understanding of how technology works, this era very well may end up being considered a “dark age.” I like to joke about solar flares… but you never know. Even “lots of copies keep stuff safe” won’t help without the electricity. The only other thing I wanted to say is that I would love to see people more curious about how the technology works with regards to their own personal digital files. All of those Gmail and Yahoo emails stored in the cloud – I’m not sure a lot of people understand how to download those to a home computer and save them in some way. Photographs on your phone? Pay attention to what is automatically backed up and what is not. Is anyone backing up comments on news sites? While often food for trolls, there also may be important information that is only relayed in the discussion following the article. There’s so much more I want to say about this topic, but I’ll stop for now. Probably PaLA should be printing off these blog posts!

  2. April 20, 2015 2:47 pm

    In Norway, the company Piql has developed “migration-free digital preservation”: They place the digital data onto a piece of “photosensitive film” and include on the film “[i]nstructions on how to retrieve the data”.

    “‘Our goal has been to keep valuable digital data securely preserved and accessible for 500 years. Ensuring that the data cannot be modified or deleted is imperative in this context,’ comments Rune Bjerkestrand, Managing Director of Piql AS.”

    Essentially they’re ensuring access by converting the data from digital to analog. :-)

    Canada Newswire. (2014, September 18). Piql AS: Piql Announces Norwegian Technology that Secures 500 Years Access to Digital Data. Canada Newswire.

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  1. How to create your own digital archive: DIY [a response to my own negativity] | CRD of PaLA

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