Magazine article Newsweek International

The Digital Dark Age

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Digital Dark Age

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick White and Michael Hastings

When Richard Masters worries about how much digital information is lost to posterity every day, he thinks back to 1972. That year Landsat began transmitting a steady stream of infrared images of Earth, giving scientists their first clear view of how the planet's surface changes over time. NASA stored the images for posterity on reels of tape, which aged so badly that researchers almost lost these priceless images. A clever NASA engineer recently revived the tape by baking the reels in an oven.

Unfortunately, this success saved only a cupful of the rising flood of data our digital age is producing--and which is in danger of being lost on countless broken hard drives and corrupted floppy disks and other ephemeral storage media. Librarians throughout the world are now concentrating on what to do with digital data--how to preserve it and keep it accessible for future generations. They're not only looking at historical records, but data that gets produced each day on Web sites and blogs, which future historians may want to consult in their research. Masters, a librarian at the British Museum in London, is trying to figure out how to digitize--and preserve--the library's 3 million-document archive, including tapes and floppy disks. "We've got material from 20 years ago that we don't know how to use or how to look at," he says. "No one has a universal solution."

Librarians fear that many important records have already been lost. Each day the World Wide Web generates enough information to fill 17 million books. All told, five million gigabytes of data--enough to fill 37,000 buildings the size of the U.S. Library of Congress--are produced each year. "In history, whenever there is a great technology shift, you have great loss," says Laura Campbell, associate librarian at the Library of Congress. …

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