The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 1

The Greater Digital Crisis

Letter to the Editor, Washington Post

January 21, 1998

The Jan. 12 Federal Page article on the Defense Department's year-2000 problem discusses serious issues affecting our computer-dependent government. But the nation also faces a second digitally based crisis that might, in time, do great harm.

We run the risk that digital information will disappear. Indeed, portions of it already have become inaccessible. Either the media on which the information is stored are disintegrating, or the computer hardware and software needed to retrieve it from obsolete digital formats no longer exist. The extent of the problem will emerge as more and more records are requested for retrieval and cannot be read. There are already documented examples of this, and government and industry representatives are concerned about the potential large-scale consequences.

When President Clinton completes his second term, his administration will send some 8 million electronic files to the National Archives. But those files are only a small fraction of the information the government will have generated during his years in office. Given the problems now surfacing as existing digital files are retrieved, the prospect of major losses to come grows increasingly likely.

Military files, including POW and MIA data from the Vietnam War, were nearly lost forever because of errors and omissions contained in the original digital records. Ten to twenty percent of vital data tapes from the Viking Mars mission have significant errors because magnetic tape is too susceptible to degradation to serve as an archival storage medium.

Research conducted by the National Media Lab, part of the National Technology Alliance--a consortium of government, industry and educational institutions that seeks to leverage commercial information technology for government users--has shown that magnetic tapes, disks, and optical CD-ROMs have relatively short lives and, therefore, questionable value as preservation media. The findings reveal that, at room temperature, top-quality data VHS tape becomes unreliable after 10 years, and average-quality CD-ROMs are unreliable after only five years. Compare those figures with a life of more than 100 years for archival-quality microfilm and paper. Current digital media are plainly unacceptable for long-term preservation.

Finding a late-model computer to read a 5.25-inch floppy disk--a format common only a few years ago--or the software to translate WordPerfect 4.0 is practically impossible. On government and industry levels, the problem is magnified: old Dectape and UNIVAC drives, which recorded vast amounts of government data, are long retired, and programs like FORTRAN II are historical curiosities.

The data stored by these machines in now-obsolete formats are virtually inaccessible. The year-2000 problem concerns only obsolete formats for storing dates. It is merely a snapshot of the greater digital crisis that puts future access to important government, business, and cultural data in such jeopardy.

Librarians and archivists have long worried that hardware and software manufacturers show more interest in discovering new technology than in preserving today's data. It is important for federal, state and local governments to set digital storage standards that will ensure future access. If private industries hope to sell their wares to governments, they will need to comply with those standards. And all of us will benefit.

Deanna B. Marcum
Council on Library and Information Resources

[Note: This letter to the Post was reprinted in the March/April 1998 CLIR Issues.]

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