“Digital items are fragile,” says the nameless narrator of the Library of Congress’ video on the importance of digital preservation. “[They] require special care to keep them usable.”
It is a statement that catches me off guard. He is right, of course – a nearly infinite sequence of 1s and 0s, electricity sparking through tiny circuits, and all able to be destroyed by a few stray drops of water. Technology is fragile, as is known by anyone who has picked up their phone after dropping it, and felt a sinking feeling settle in their stomach as they see the familiar pattern of fresh cracks spiderwebbing across the screen, beautiful and terrible. Though a broken screen is easily repaired, and no data need be lost, it is so easy to damage a device badly enough that the data is irretrievable – even through no fault of your own.
But this statement still surprised me, because it is not the direction we usually think in when it comes to questions of preservation. Normally, when these questions arise it is in the context of preserving physical items – items that the selfsame narrator states “can easily survive for years, decades, and even centuries.” Yet we take these objects, and we scan them or photograph them or transcribe them, and we store them in a digital form. This is the usual method that preservation efforts follow. And I have absolutely no doubt that this is a Very Good Thing™. The Royal Society of London, for instance, has a massive collection of old documents and artifacts and all kinds of fascinating or historic things, from the manuscript of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica to his death mask, from standards for units of measurement in the 19th century to telescope lenses constructed in the 17th century to the world’s oldest scientific journal, published in 1665. There are thousands upon thousands of these curiosities, some of which are entirely unique – many of the papers have no other known copies in existence. The Royal Society is currently undertaking to scan many of these artifacts and documents, but there are so many that it will be a long process.
I can think of three reasons why we usually think of the physical objects as in greater need of preservation. First of all, the physical objects that we revere are generally older – after all, digital technology has only existed for a few short decades, and while we have some artifacts that we preserve from that time, they are often either numerous or valuable only in their connection to a specific person or event. Museums may have shells or tanks or uniforms from World War 2, but they are more for informative purposes than preservational ones, and should the items be damaged, it would likely not be difficult to obtain another.
Beyond the mere fact of the objects being old, their age shows. An old photograph may be yellowed and warped, an old book water stained or ink-smudged, an old artifact scratched or chipped. An old CD, on the other hand, looks almost the same as a brand new one. An old floppy disk generally doesn’t look particularly world-worn or well-loved, and if an object containing digital data does look its age, the data is often the worse for wear as well.
And finally, there is our tendency to believe that newer is better, that technology is better – almost to the point of believing infallibility, even when this is so clearly not the case. When Microsoft Word tells me to correct a description of someone’s “bare arms” to their “bear arms” – technology is being very fallible. When Amazon mistypes a command, and accidentally takes out half the internet – technically the humans are the fallible ones, but technology is the reason the problem was so widespread. Technology is incredibly useful, but we do tend to become reliant on it, and that can be dangerous. Anything further back than the second page of Google results doesn’t exist, inaccurate rumours can spread unchecked, and people occasionally obey their GPS systems beyond all reason, driving into lakes or off bridges.
Many of our most valuable memories are now contained in our phones or in the cloud. Some of us may have never backed up our computers, and should disaster strike tomorrow, the losses would be irreplaceable. But physical objects can be irreplaceable too. A keepsake handed down from a grandparent. A possession of a famous historical figure. Even a cheap souvenir from a honeymoon trip. We can preserve the digital data, we can back it up on external drives or online or give it to other people. But the physical objects are not so easily preserved. If it is only the information they contain or represent, that is easy enough. But you cannot physically reproduce a memory, or a connection, and that is often what makes an object valuable. The wristband I got from attending NerdCon: Nerdfighteria has no intrinsic value. It wasn’t even that expensive to purchase (though the purchase price was obviously more about the experience than the wristband). But I value the wristband, not for being beautiful or comfortable or interesting or expensive, but because it is a physical representation of an incredible memory.
“Why Digital Preservation is Important for Everyone.” YouTube, uploaded by LibraryOfCongress, 1 April 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEmmeFFafUs.
Haran, Brady. YouTube, Objectivity. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtwKon9qMt5YLVgQt1tvJKg.