Preserving digital data for the future

We explore the origins and future of digital preservation, information management’s biggest issue.

This year will see the first ever International Digital Preservation Day. Taking place on November 30, the day’s activities will center around exploring how the worlds of industry, commerce, government, research and culture plan to sustain precious data in an age of fast-changing technologies. To discover why this is such a pressing information management issue, we’re taking you on a journey from China during the Han Dynasty to the Arctic Circle 1,000 years from now.

Paper, which was first invented in China around 105 AD, is the longest running data-storage format in history. Documents written on it have enjoyed impressive longevity; one of the oldest surviving books, a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, was found in readable condition after being stored in a cave for 900 years. Despite this millennia-long love affair with the format, the U.S. reached peak paper in 2001 and other nations gradually followed as the world went digital.

This year (2017) will see the first ever International Digital Preservation Day.

The problem with this change is the fickle nature of digital storage. While paper in the 19th century made a monumental shift from cotton and linen-based fibers to wood, the reading process was unaffected. In the digital age, changing software and physical storage formats render data unreadable as the hardware required is less readily available. During most people’s working lifetimes, we’ve seen software such as World Perfect become obsolete and watched as floppy disks went from being an essential physical storage format to being just an icon that millennials unknowingly click.

In 1982, scientists became particularly nervous about losing data from space research. Over the course of the next 17 years, the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems developed the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model, which is now an international standard in long-term data storage. Simplified greatly, an OAIS environment oversees the relationship between data producers, consumers, managers and the archive itself, ensuring that stored data can be accessed and understood on an ongoing basis by a designated community of readers.

In 2002, a company called Piql saw a business opportunity in counterintuitively converting digital data into analogue data. The photosensitive films used to store the data protect information from editing, deletion and from remote attack, meaning it can be preserved in the longer term. Just how long term Piql is thinking became clear this year as the company opened the Arctic World Archive, a secure vault in the Arctic Circle that can theoretically preserve data for up to 1,000 years. The vault’s location speaks to the importance of its contents as it sits next to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This collection, better known as the Doomsday Library, houses the world’s most important crop seeds to preserve food supplies in the face of natural disaster and nuclear war.

Information, the seed of tomorrow’s progress, is precious and needs to be protected against loss. Does your company have a digital preservation plan in place to prevent information being edited, hacked or becoming unreadable? Contact the experts at Crown Records Management to find solutions and services to help deal with these challenges.