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30 June 2012

Digital Archiving

Tag(s): History, Technology

My favourite subject at school was History. I read Law at University but I gained my place there on History. At first I loved the stories, and then later I learnt the idea of interpretation of History. Then I learnt that the study of history involved the study of virtually everything else. I remember the first time I studied primary sources, or at least copies of the original documents. These documents were hundreds of years old and are still stored in libraries and museums, available for scholars or even the general public to read and study. They are of course paper documents. In 1086 William the Conqueror completed a comprehensive survey of the country he had conquered twenty years before. “The Domesday Book” as it came to be known, contained details of 13,418 places in England and Wales and 112 boroughs – and is still available for public inspection at the National Archives in London. When a new survey was commissioned to commemorate the 900th anniversary it was recorded on special 12-inch laser discs, a format developed by my old employer Sony that is now obsolete.

The paper used in “The Domesday Book” was a relatively new technology to Europe.  105 AD is often cited as the year in which papermaking was invented. Historical records show that in that year the invention of paper was reported to the Emperor of China by the Director of the Imperial Workshops, Ts’ai Lun. However, recent archaeological investigations suggest that it was invented some two centuries earlier. Ancient paper pieces in China’s northwest Gansu province apparently date from the period of Emperor Wu who reigned from 140 BC to 86 BC. But Ts’ai Lun certainly developed the process of papermaking which transformed his country. Papermaking was kept a closely guarded secret for another two centuries before slowly spreading through the Far East, then the Middle East and North Africa. The art of papermaking took 600 years to spread through Europe and was initially resisted as a Moslem import.  But once it was introduced society came rapidly to depend on it, particularly after the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century.

John Tate founded Britain’s first known paper mill near Hertford around 1488. Sheets of paper with his watermark have been found in books printed in 1494. While the invention of moveable type in 1440 made printing easier, paper was still expensive. The cost and labour involved in making paper by hand severely limited how much was available. For centuries paper was made, one sheet at a time, by straining pulp through a wire mesh. This was both slow and skilful. Then, as part of the Industrial Revolution, came the idea to make the wire mesh into a conveyor belt, the first conveyor belt in fact. With pulp poured in at one end and wet paper taken off at the other the revolution in paper production began. This was a French invention but with British capital the world’s first mechanised paper mill was established in 1803, paving the way for mass communication, universal education and worldwide knowledge. That mill, Frogmore Mill in Hemel Hempstead, is a few miles from my home and is still making paper.[i]

But now we are in the digital era. Although the idea of the paperless office has proved elusive nevertheless, increasingly, we are communicating and storing data electronically. Moore’s law which states that the cost of memory will halve, or alternatively its capacity will double, every eighteen months has proved to be true and so memory seems almost infinite. We are behaving as if this digital memory will last for ever but in fact it often has a short life. Adam Farquhar, in charge of the British Library’s digital preservation programme says “If we’re not careful, we will know more about the beginning of the 20th century than the beginning of the 21st century.”[ii]

The problem is not so much hardware, which can be replaced every few years at low cost, but software which is often changed. If the original program has gone even an archive of mint-condition files can be useless. This is not a theoretical problem but one that has already caused the loss of valuable files. In the music business for example there are original recordings of famous artists at Abbey Road studios that cannot be replayed because they are on inaccessible formats.

A further complication is copyright. The Library of Congress must by law seek permission before archiving a website. Computer programs, games, music and books come with digital rights management software to protect them against piracy, but the same programs also prevent archiving, or turn the librarian into a criminal. The internet started out as an open world but increasingly as apps take over on mobile devices this world is much more closed with fierce protection of wares. These may never be archived making the job of a future historian much more difficult.

Efforts are being made to overcome these obstacles. The Library of Congress had $100 million of government funding to start its digital-preservation programme back in 2000. Most rich countries have followed suit and in Britain the National Archives keeps copies of all government websites. The British Library is archiving all British online material. Read that sentence again to understand the scale of such projects. The best-known digital preservation effort is the Internet Archive, a private not-for-profit project. Its servers host the Wayback Machine which lets users see how a website looked on specified days in the past. There are roughly 160 billion web pages and over 100,000 recordings of live concerts there and in researching this blog I listened to the Grateful Dead perform in Anchorage, Alaska in 1980.[iii]

University archivists are attempting to find a common approach of how to deal with digitally recorded material. Headed by the University of Virginia and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a collaborative project  involving digital archivists at Stanford and Yale universities and the University of Hull has published a white paper entitled “AIMS Born-Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship”.  It focuses on “a common need among the project partners – and most libraries and archives – to identify a methodology or continuous framework for stewarding (the) born-digital archival materials” that have been “slowly accumulating in archival backlogs for years.”[iv]

This is not straightforward. Libraries are not technology museums and cannot maintain a bank of machines to access all the different storage media that have been used over the past fifty years or so. Just think of your own music collection which in my lifetime has included long-playing records, 45 RPM singles, compact cassettes, cartridges, CDs, DAT, DCC, minidiscs, and now is being streamed over the internet. Letters used to be filed neatly in distinct cases. Now emails are all jumbled up with private correspondence mixed in with legal documents.

In my Livery Company I act as Chairman of the Heritage Committee. We were only founded as a guild in 1975, gained Livery status in 1977 and were awarded our Royal Charter in 2010. Nevertheless we have amassed considerable archives and are currently engaged in an extensive History project. We have enlisted the aid of a small company in Hampshire[v],that specialises in digital copying, to copy every page of our records, some 15,000 pages. Once complete we will be able to put them all online with various levels of security. This will enable members and other interested parties to access these records and gain an understanding of how the company was formed and has developed.

This provides an insurance policy against losing our great books to fire or other pestilence and also allows much greater access than is currently possible as they spend most of their time locked up in the basement of a sister company’s hall. But we also have to think of how we can access such data in the future. We must always plan to copy these records anew onto new formats as they emerge and minimise degradation in the process. In our case the scope of the task and the vision is clear. But so much of what future historians will want to access is very far from clear. Unless archivists and depositors make good decisions today about what should be preserved then future historians may refer to present times as a new Dark Ages.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

[ii]“Digital archiving- History flushed” The Economist 28th April 2012


[iv]“Memory block: how to keep awkward bits of history alive” Times Higher Education 22nd  March 2012

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