Experts trying to preserve world's digital knowledge

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2008 

WASHINGTON — If you've lost family photos, can't listen to your beloved old cassette tapes or no longer can read important files stored on your previous computer, you're not alone.

An international group of experts began work this week in Washington to tackle a huge problem facing ordinary families, the entertainment industry, scientists, businesses and governments, among others.

The problem is that most of the words, sounds or pictures that are created these days come in digital form. They consist of endless streams of electronic zeroes and ones stored on magnetic tapes or computer disks, not printed on paper or film or carved in stone. Digital data can be accessed only by machines whose technology keeps changing and soon is outdated.

``It's the grand challenge of the Information Age,'' said Francine Berman, the director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. ``We produce digital data in truly staggering amounts.''

Berman is the co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Library of Congress and other organizations.

The task force consists of computer scientists, information experts, lawyers and economists who'll spend the next two years trying to devise a system to store data in a way that they can be read, heard or viewed for the foreseeable future.

``We assume that the data will be there, when and where we want it,'' Berman said.

Most details remain to be worked out, but the digital information probably will be stored in a network of computer ``repositories'' scattered across the globe. To avoid obsolescence, the information will have to ``migrate'' repeatedly from existing systems to the next generation of storage platforms. Decisions have to be made about which data will be kept, who'll have access to them, what it will cost and how to protect confidential or private information.

``I don't want anyone except my doctor to see my medical records,'' Berman said.

Examples of lost data abound. Early images of the Earth and the moon from space were stored on 1970s-era UNIVAC computers and can't be recovered. Almost half the Web sites created in 1998 vanished within a year. Data stored on once-ubiquitous floppy disks probably are gone forever.

Berman has called the burning of the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt, more than a thousand years ago, ``one of the most devastating losses of knowledge in all of civilization."

"Today, however, the digital information that drives our world and powers our economy is in many ways more susceptible to loss than the papyrus and parchment at Alexandria,'' she said.

In addition to the National Science Foundation and the Library of Congress, the project is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Archives and Records Administration and similar bodies in the United Kingdom.

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