Aug 252008

As a records manager by trade (and having worked in the government sector for a bit), I have had to learn a thing or two about preservation. An article concerning the use some special eye readable technologies to store thousands of pages in a durable media to last thousands caught my eye, and I found it to be fascinating project.

Certainly digital preservation is a concern today, and while the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is working on ways to preserve digital data, the issues are multi-fold. First, the stability of the media.  CD’s and tape have a relatively limited shelf life. Then there is the concern of readability of the media. We have to ensure there is a compatible piece of hardware that can read the tape or disk. And of course, there has to a program capable of interpreting or reassembling the information into a meaningful format.

Paper is actually a pretty good long term storage media. Yes, it’s prone to damage from fire and water and is costly to duplicate and store, but high quality acid free paper, stored in a controlled environment can last at least 1,000 years…and in some situations, can approach 2,000 years. It is eye-readable, so one does not have the problem of having to have the correct hardware or software. The only challenge is learning to interpret the characters themselves.

Many people started writing off microfilm as document scanning got into full swing about ten years ago. But scanning creates a digital artifact with all the inherent issues we talked about earlier. Microfilm, properly processed and stored can also last up to 1,000 years. It is not eye-readable in it’s native format, but with glass for magnification and light for illumination, it is eye-readable. And like paper, when viewing microfilm, it is easy for one to realize that information is encoded, and it’s easy to determine what it will take to at least view the information, even if one does not necessarily know the meaning of the characters. Also, it’s relatively inexpensive to duplicate and store.

The Long Now Foundation has undertaken a project to try to preserve language for 1,000- 10,000 years, and has come up with a cool way to do that. It’s called a Rosetta Disk. The Rosetta disk contains analog ‘human-readable’ scans of scripts, text, and diagrams using nickel deposited on an etched silicon disk and includes 15,000 micro-etched pages of language documentation in 1,500 different languages, including versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, and pronunciation guides.

Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ’em Safe), the Foundation’s plan is to replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world in nondescript locations so at least one will survive their 2,000-year lifespan. “This is one of the most fascinating objects on earth,” says Oliver Wilke. “If we found one of these things 2,000 years ago, with all the languages of the time, it would be among our most priceless artifacts. I feel a high responsibility for preserving it for future generations.”

One disk was placed on a European Space probe launched in 2004 that will attempt to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And there it will sit, orbiting in the cosmos with a backup copy of our languages…just in case.

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