Beyond Migration: Preserving Electronic Documents with Digital Tablets

By Kranch, Douglas A. | Information Technology and Libraries, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Beyond Migration: Preserving Electronic Documents with Digital Tablets


Kranch, Douglas A., Information Technology and Libraries


There are many advantages to electronic documents, but there are corresponding disadvantages, including the preservation issues of obsolescence and the fragile nature of the storage media. The current primary preservation strategy is migration, which is costly, uncertain, and impermanent. Digital tablets should be developed as a more permanent alternative strategy that would store both the documents and the software to use them. Current and near-future technology that could be used to produce a digital tablet is discussed.

Librarians define their roles around the information technology of their day. A half century ago, the newly invented electronic computer was the play-thing of the military and the government. Had librarians been polled about its application to the library, it is doubtful that many would have found use for it. However, already in the 1940s the flood of technical information was threatening to overwhelm libraries, and visionaries saw electronics and automation as the answer to the problem of controlling it.[1] Today, many librarians would consider computers indispensable to the service they offer. This is a profound change for an entire profession to undergo in just fifty years.

The tremendous increase in technical publishing is still driving the search for a mechanical solution to information handling. Technology is fast becoming the principal means for communicating knowledge. Assuming continual technological developments that increase speed and decrease the cost of memory,[2] we can expect electronic documents to proliferate at an increasingly rapid rate.

It cannot be denied that there are numerous advantages to documents in electronic format. Even such skeptics of the electronic revolution as Gorman and Crawford conclude that there are "some print publications that should disappear" and become electronic, even though they may be relatively few in number.[3] The arguments in favor of the electronic environment given by Lancaster, Hickey, Getz, and Kenney concern production and access speed, access precision, immediacy of response, decreased cost and space needs, linkages with other works, reformatting and copying fidelity, and search and retrieval enhancements.[4] The push to electronic is strong enough to lead Hickey to foresee electronic and online access possibly replacing paper as the major access to journal literature "over a single decade."[5]

Electronic documents also have their liabilities. These include the need for a mechanized intermediary with its associated maintenance and expertise, the cost of conversion and its incompleteness, assuring privacy during use, constantly changing equipment and formatting, the definition of a "document" in a linked and hypertexted environment, and preservation.[6] There is also the electronic "halo effect." A document from a computer is often assumed to be accurate, entire, and whole. Even in a tightly controlled database, this does not always prove true.[7]

Electronic Document Preservation

Of all these disadvantages, none seems more serious to this author than preservation. In this context, preservation has two meanings: preservation of the electronic document qua document, and the preservation of a civilization through its documents.

Preserving written documents has centered on keeping at least one copy of a stored document in usable condition. Preserving the document automatically preserved the information. With electronic documents, preserving the document is a separate issue from preserving the information in the document. The document may be preserved, but the format of the preserved information may be long since unreadable. This makes preserving digital information as originally recorded useless over the long run. In the headlong rush to provide access to information by placing it in digital collections, Ackerman and Fielding believe long-term document maintenance will be significantly more difficult than it has been in traditional libraries. …

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