Queen's University

The trouble with e-archives

The march of technology that may soon render old-fashioned paper documents obsolete is creating some challenging problems for archivists and historians alike, laments journalist-author Wayne Grady.

Will the e-book replace the traditional paper book, often referred to now as “p-book”?

The problem, as I see it, isn’t deciding which form of memory storage and retrieval system is better. The problem is which one is going to be around in a readable format for future generations to use?

In their recently published (as a p-book) dialogue on the future of reading, This Is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere note with concern that it wasn’t so long ago that videotapes, the CD, and the CD-ROM were all hailed as “long-term media formats.”

Queen’s Archives staffers Heather Home (right), and Jeremy HeilQueen’s Archives staffers Heather Home and Jeremy Heil with an old Macintosh computer in which files of interest to historians and other researchers are stored. (Greg Black photo)

Libraries and archives transferred ­entire databases to these technological marvels, and each in turn has become outdated and unreadable. “The American factories that used to make those little marvels,” says ­Carriere, “closed down more than seven years ago.”

When the DVD came out, he adds, “We were sure we had finally acquired the perfect solution.” But recent research suggests the shelf-life of a DVD is about 10 years. Carriere has a filmmaker friend who keeps 18 computers in his cellar, so that he can access old work... “which goes to show that there is nothing more ephemeral than ‘long-term’ media formats.”

Jeremy Heil, technical services archivist at Queen’s Archives, is like that filmmaker: he is desperately trying to acquire obsolete, but functioning, computer hardware so that Archives can begin acquiring digital material from the people whose work the Archives are collecting. “So much of what writers and professors are creating these days exists only in digital format,” he says, “and right now we have no good way of keeping it.”

For once, the problem at Queen’s isn’t only a shortage of money. “If we had all the money in the world,” Heil says, “we could solve the problem in a month, but technology is moving so quickly that we’d need all the money in the world again 10 years from now.”

And it isn’t just a hardware issue, notes Jeremy’s colleague Heather Home, Queen’s public services archivist. “In a way, software is even more of a problem because it’s proprietary. Everything is owned by somebody,” she says.

Ironically and symbolically, Hugh Segal’s floppy discs and Vera Frenkel’s hard-drive are sitting on the shelf beside a box of wax cylinders from the 1890s, all three storage systems equally outdated and inaccessible.

Not everyone knows, for example, that anything posted on Facebook is owned by Facebook. Downloading and storing a poem or a photograph published on Facebook could be deemed illegal.

There are people who are saving work on the web. There is a website, Internet Archive, that provides free access to books, films, and movies, and it has archived more than 150 billion web pages. However, there is no guarantee that Internet Archive’s robots will have nosed-out the web pages that Queen’s wants to keep, and the whole effort is driven by a single person, a man named Brewster Kahle, who, as Heil points out, “may either run out of money or simply decide not to do it anymore.”

Queen’s Archives have acquired some digital material already, although they’re not quite sure what they’ll do with it. “It’s trickling in,” says Heather Home, “and we know there’s a tidal wave coming.”

They have a stack of old floppy discs once owned by Sen. Hugh Segal. They also have a hard-drive that belonged to video artist Vera Frenkel, who was artist-in-residence at Queen’s in 2006. Great holdings, both. The problem? “We’re going to need a computer museum to access these things,” Heil says, “and someone to keep it running. We’ve already lost our reel-to-reel tape machine. A part broke, and no one is making replacement parts for it.”

And so, ironically and symbolically, Hugh Segal’s floppy discs and Vera Frenkel’s hard-drive are sitting on the shelf beside a box of wax cylinders from the 1890s, all three storage systems equally outdated and inaccessible.

“In a sense,” says Home, putting her finger on the crux of the problem presented by escalating obsolescence, “we’re reverting to an oral culture. We live in a communication age. There’s all this communicating going on out there, just as there was in Homer’s time, but we have no way of preserving the physical evidence of that communication.”

Queen's Alumni Review, 2012 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2012 Issue #2
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