How Safe is Digital Information?
Sangita Purohit, Librarian, AES-Ahmedabad, India
Given the right hardware and software, digital information is easy to create copy and disseminate; however, it is very hard to preserve. At present, it is impossible to guarantee the longevity and legibility of digital information for even one human generation.
The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has sponsored work on possible solutions to this problem. One such solution is the development of emulators, which would enable access to information created using software and hardware that has since become obsolete. The merits of emulation are widely debated, and the approach has yet to be developed for broad, practical use. A more viable strategy, many argue, is migration, which the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information defines as “the periodic transfer of digital materials from one hardware/software configuration to another, or from one generation of computer technology to a subsequent generation.” This paper does not argue the merits of emulation or migration for longevity; rather, it addresses the practical aspects of migration in an operating library. Migration is, in essence, a translation. With migration, as with all translations, some information is lost, no matter how skilled the interpreter. In migration, it is usually the context, rather than the data, that drops out or is improperly reconstructed in the new code. This can be crippling in dynamic formats, in relational databases, and even in simple spreadsheets. None the less, given how much information already exists in digital form and the brevity of its projected life span, institutions must act now to move information forward. They cannot afford to wait for the optimal solution.
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