The Librarians Burden

Since prehistory human beings have used one method or another to record information; mediums as simplistic as charcoal and ochre smudges on cave walls to quantum computing by reading electron spin. The longevity of storage has become an issue with newer recording mediums. Writing either on or in stone has obviously stood the test of time, though logistically impractical. Recordings on printed paper (papyrus) stretch as far back as 2000BCE in the Prisse Papyrus, though in admittedly atrocious condition. Storage on paper does not have an indefinite life span, but given ideal conditions this medium can last millennia. More modern mediums, especially digital ones, have made dramatic improvements, most notably improvements in size. Today entire multivolume dictionaries can be stored on the head of a pin. Unfortunately there is a draw back to digital recording mediums; with newer mediums longevity has taken a back seat to size. The most obvious problem with the longevity of digitally stored media is that even under ideal conditions information will disappear. Magnetic storage (cassette tapes, hard disks, etc.) only lasts a few decades; even compact disks cannot last indefinitely. This however can be averted in much the same way it is with books, with reprinting. There is another issue that has already started to arise with modern storage methods, that is obsolescence of a medium. The transition from stone to clay to paper took hundreds of thousands of years and examples of each remain to this day, yet in the past fifty we have go from vinyl to magnetic tape to compact disks and beyond none of which are likely to last a century. The ability to access information is already an issue and will only get worse with time. How many of us still have access to a working 3.5” floppy drive? How many even care if they do?  However if the only accessible form of Van Gogh’s or Oscar Wilde’s works were stored on floppy disks, we certainly would care. The idea of just letting go of great works is inconceivable. Unfortunately this is a possibility with some newer works which are designed in and bound to a digital medium. Electronic literature could suffer a sad fate if steps are not taken. Just as floppy disks have fallen by the wayside, the technology used to read e-literature could suffer a similar fate. All of the pieces in the ELC require a program to be accessed. If Quicktime, Flash or Gargoyle became obsolete and no longer available, almost all e-literature would be lost to us. The preservation of art, literature, science and philosophy; all the best of human culture is invaluable. The ability to access, use and enjoy this wealth should be available to everyone including future generations. Libraries, archives and museums need to begin taking measures to prevent the loss of digital culture in all forms. Whether by keeping all programs needed to access digital art forms or by transcribing them into newer technologies as they come. Measures must be implemented to prevent the loss of digital culture before it disappears.

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