Dig some digital archaeology

The Andy Warhol Museum recently announced that it had recovered some digital files of Warhol’s art, originally created on an Amiga console in 1985. (Here’s the press release, and a blog post about the find.)

Warhol Museum press release

Washington Post blog about Warhol find

While the Warhol archaeology was most likely conducted in an archival setting, there was also news this week of an actual dig in New Mexico for another sort of digital legacy.

Atari games found in landfill

In the case of the Warhol files, what the archivists conducted was a “migration” of digital objects, from an old format to a current format. I’ll go into more depth about migration later. In 1994, an academic task force was created to make recommendations on how digital objects should be preserved. This project yielded a “Report on Preserving Digital Resources” in 1996, and its recommendations are still the baseline protocol for digital archiving practices today. (Here’s the report: http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub63watersgarrett.pdf)

Five things to know about digital preservation:

1 ) Physical media is fragile

In the press release from the Warhol museum, one of the archivists mentioned that they had no way of extracting or reading the files on the disks, and had (until last year) merely focused on preserving the disks themselves. The fragility of the physical media (disks, hard drives, cartridges, tapes, etc.) is a great concern in preservation efforts. The plastic casing breaks down over time (especially if not kept in a climate controlled environment), and magnetic tape can also deteriorate.

2) Hardware and software are transient

Although there are several websites (like Ebay, or Craigslist) where old equipment can usually be found, it can’t always be assumed that the type of hardware necessary to access files will be obtainable. The software needed to open files changes, too, and may not be compatible with the hardware available. This clip from the anime “Cowboy Bebop,” set in the year 2071, takes a humorous look back at the Betamax format:

The main characters come into possession of a Betamax tape, and have to seek out a specialist in 20th century technology to sell it.

3) Websites are transient

Some websites which seem irreplaceable or one-of-a-kind are here today and gone tomorrow. Even sites that have greater longevity are always in flux with design and content updates. While the speed of this development is an aspect of the internet that makes it unique as a communication form, it is also an obstacle to the preservation of today’s culture. The Library of Congress and other organizations are active in catching snapshots of this culture as it progesses: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/about/presentation.html

4) Personal digital archiving is important

In previous decades, all of our personal legacy was left in the form of physical objects: Printed photos, hand-written letters, notes, etc. Today, a lot of that communication is made digitally. I don’t say that to disparage either method, but the reality is that physical objects are more likely to be accessed by subsequent generations, unless we take steps to preserve our digital footprints. It takes some effort, but the Library of Congress has some good info on how to get started:

Personal archiving

Curating a digital legacy

5) Migration is key

“Migration” was one of the methods for digital preservation that the Report on Preserving Digital Resources recommended. This is basically transferring data from an old format into a current format, periodically, so that technology doesn’t outpace the collection. There are a few limitations to this practice (such as when there are massive amounts of data in a collection, or when the collection is still changing and being added to), but it is a good way to keep small archives accessible.

Was this information interesting or helpful to you? Let me know with an email or a comment, and be sure to share on Facebook! (Check out my post about preserving letters, too.)

Other links:

Warhol paints Debbie Harry

LOC digital preservation

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