Sunday, October 11, 2009

Once again, future-safe archives

Once again, future-safe archives: Every time a relative passes this issue comes front and center for me. Most other times it's just lurking in the shadows. [...] We need one or more institutions that can manage electronic trusts over very long periods of time. [...] I've felt that universities would do the best job, since they already need to maintain the work of their professors, possibly in partnership with technology companies. This could be a huge source of endowments, as wealthy people with a vision for techology compete to build long-lasting monuments to their creativity and generosity. (Via Scripting News).

A big challenge here is to estimate the endowment needed to keep some amount of data archived in perpetuity, given the uncertainties of cost as technologies and environmental conditions change, and of return on endowment. The Barnes Foundation serves as a cautionary case. Its endowment turned out to be insufficient for the cost of keeping the collection safe. What saved the situation was that the popular appeal of the collection brought in other sources of funding in exchange for transformation into a more conventional museum. Most digital archives would not have that luck in a crunch.

Fortunately, for easily-copied digital information we don't need to rely on a small number of institutions for long-term preservation. Projects like LOCKSS demonstrate the possibility of distributed preservation using many cheap copies. Could they be institutionally extended to preserve personal data?

Update: David Rosenthal on digital preservation.

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