Six Lines

Something We Might Lose

Posted by Aaron Massey on 30 Sep 2015.

Radiolab is one of my favorite podcasts, and I recently listened to an episode about the Mau Mau. It’s a fascinating story, and Radiolab does a great job with it, as usual. There is, however, one important angle that’s not mentioned in the story. I’ll mention it after the embedded episode below, so if you’re interested in not spoiling part of the podcast, don’t read any more until you’ve listened to the episode.

Information technologies have made many things far easier than they used to be, but archiving and preservation are actually far more difficult in an electronic environment. Electronic communications completely changes the way that records are stored and archived. Here’s a summary of the problem from the Economist:

PICTURE yourself as a historian in 2035, trying to make sense of this year’s American election campaign. Many of the websites and blogs now abuzz with news and comment will have long since perished. Data stored electronically decays. Many floppy disks from the early digital age are already unreadable. If you are lucky, copies of campaign material, and of e-mails and other materials (including declassified official documents), will be available in public libraries.

But will you be able to read them? Already, NASA has lost data from some of its earliest missions to the moon because the machines used to read the tapes were scrapped and cannot be rebuilt. A wise librarian will wish to keep in working order a few antique computers that can read such ancient technologies as CDs and USB thumb-drives. But even that may not be enough. Computer files are not worth anything without software to open them.

In addition to these problems, there is the simple fact that digital records are created so easily. This means that federal agencies have greatly increased the number and type of records that are generated and managed. And thus, they have greatly increase the number and type of records that must be archived.

Basically every single GAO report looking at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has said that they are not able to do their job both because of the challenges of archiving digital information and because of the lack of funding and recognition given to the problem. NARA is unprepared to manage and oversee digital archiving efforts. Federal agencies are not meeting NARA’s standards for records management. NARA is unaware of where some agencies are storing their records. These are not small problems, and I suspect many concerns, such as privacy and security, remain unidentified.

Often when talking about the problems associated with digital archiving, there is no clear negative. The loss is always described in the abstract. It ends up sounding like a pointless platitude advocated for by a bureaucratic packrat. In reality, the negatives are things like never hearing Radiolab’s story on the Mau Mau and the atrocious things done as a part of colonialism. Human nature hasn’t changed since colonialism. I’m certain that governments around the world, including the United States, are doing things right now that they would love to hide from history. If we don’t address the challenges of digital preservation, they will likely succeed.