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Saving our history

Harley L. Sachs - September 21st, 2009
Saving Our History
What happens if our digital
records get wiped out?
Harley L. Sachs 9/21/09

With the Internet buzzing with warnings about the threat from Iran or Korea of an EMP -- a destructive “electromagnetic pulse” -- that could disrupt America’s electrical grid, shut down communications, and wipe out all electronic circuitry and digital files, there’s a genuine risk that we can lose not only our current computer files, but our history.
If the entire digital store of human knowledge went up in smoke tomorrow, how would we know how to make anything? Without permanent records, the knowledge on how to do everything from smelting iron ore to building nuclear power plants would be lost.
Remember the Rosetta Stone? It was dug up by one of Napoleon’s soldiers in Egypt and has the same document carved into it in three languages, including the then-undecipherable hieroglyphics which took more than 20 years to decipher.
Years ago, thinking about the Rosetta Stone, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Technical Communication using a box of sand and a five-and-a-quarter-inch computer disk. As a future archeologist, I reported we had found this artifact from the 20th century, a vinyl plastic object of uncertain use. To the horror of the attending audience, I took it apart and found a brown, coated plastic disk. Hmm. What could that be? Obviously, it was unreadable and useless.
In fact, if you pick up a five-and-a-quarter-inch computer disk at the Goodwill today, you probably can’t access the data on it, for the disks are no longer made and the drives exist only on obsolete computers destined for the recycling heaps. Technology moves too rapidly.
I kept some allegedly archival files on such disks in our safe, but when I wanted to check on them I found that the glue that held the felt cleaning pad to the inside of the vinyl cover had leaked through and damaged the magnetic surface of the data disk inside. It was useless. Disks don’t last, and CDs have a shelf life of five to 15 years. Magnetic tape on old reel-to-reel recordings gets brittle and there’s through-print as the magnetic record creeps.
Yet old manuscripts in my 14 file drawers of hard copies typed on paper, some going back 60 years, are still readable, even thought the early ones were on the cheapest yellow foolscap.
What’s scary is that the Library of Congress is currently digitizing its holdings. Yes, it saves space. The digital versions of my drawers full of manuscripts after 1983 when I got the first computer easily fit on a single one gigabyte flash drive. It’s amazing. And my CD “Library of the Future” holds 5,000 titles, including some audio clips; but what’s its shelf life?
Knowing the limited shelf life of those digital files, the whole collection will have to be transferred every 15 years or so to the latest storage medium or the library will go the route of the IBM census on punch cards.
An old Master Sergeant in the California National Guard keeps a couple of manual typewriters hidden in the back of a store room against the day when all the computers crash. We still have a couple of portables. Time to advertise on eBay:
“For sale: machine that makes archival quality copies; requires no batteries or electric power source, is immune from EMP attack or power grid failure.”
We have two archival machines, a Royal portable my mother used and my 1940 Underwood from the era of Ernie Pyle (Ernie Pyle? Who was that? Another story…).
Now all I need are some fresh typewriter ribbons. There’s an old cheapskate’s trick: drip some lubricant onto the spools of dry ribbon to bring it back to life. The first few pages may be oil spattered, and eventually even that method won’t work when the ink is finally gone. Shucks.

 
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