You are viewing the print version of this article. Click here to view the full version.
Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Digital archives don't last: A tale of corruption and crashes

By Tom Warhover
April 15, 2011 | 2:56 p.m. CDT
Digital archive consultant Vicky McCargar used this corrupted photo as an example of how digital information does not necessarily last forever.

Dear Reader,

There’s an information-keeping crisis out there.


Related Media

Digital information has a short shelf life. All that news — especially those photos and articles that bypassed a print edition — aren’t safe.  Software systems become obsolete. Files become corrupted. Hard drives become worn out.

How long is that photo of your trip to the beach safe on your CD? If you said 10 years, you’d probably be wrong.

Frederick Zarndt, an entrepreneur and digital archives expert, told me you’re pushing your luck if you assume even five years. (Like all things, though, it depends: Record on a high quality CD, keep it stored just so, don’t use it and you could get 50 years. But who does that?)

How about those perfectly preserved newspaper pages that have been digitally fossilized? They’re usually stored on hard drives, which can wear out quicker than your grandmother’s underwear.  

Earlier this week, I sat in with a group of archivists, scholars, vendors and newspaper editors at Reynolds Journalism Institute. These were smart people who clearly had spent a long time thinking about the myriad issues related to preserving our nation’s newspapers.

Digital archive consultant Vicky McCargar found the above photo decaying in the e-files of the Los Angeles Times. It looks like an interpretive illustration, but it’s actually a documentary photo, one that has been corrupted over time.

That piece of history could be gone forever if the original negative wasn’t saved.

And what’s a newspaper to do with all those negatives and prints?

The Daily Oklahoman has 1.6 million photos, a treasure trove inaccessible to people because most of it isn’t digitized.

The digital format with the longest shelf life is microfilm. Zarndt says it can last 500 years. It’s more accessible, but hardly easy to use.

Other problems:

Some people dedicate their careers to trying to prevent the loss of images.

“Even if we can capture a bucket, but we can never capture it all,” said the Library of Congress’s Martha Anderson.

She’s trying. Anderson is the director of program management for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. That’s a fancy title for an effort to preserve at-risk content.

Fixes all cost money. Don’t look for publishers to pay unless there’s an economic incentive.

How much will it cost?

If a single newspaper page costs 50 cents to convert and preserve to microfilm, a Tuesday Missourian would cost $8 to $12, including advertising supplements. Not so bad, right?

Not until you do the math.  Five or six days a week, 52 weeks a year, 103 years …

And that’s just for the print edition.

By midday Monday, I was ready to call in the dogs and call it a day. It all seemed too complicated and costly. But this was a curiously optimistic bunch. No one was backing away.

That’s a good thing for you and me.