Preserving the digital future of the forgotten format


As part of the negotiations for the creation of a science gallery in Venice a few years ago, I visited the Venetian State Archives, which is in a 13th-century Franciscan monastery a few minutes walk from the famous Rialto Bridge. The buildings contain an incredible 80 km of floor-to-ceiling shelving, completely filled with dusty volumes dating back over a thousand years.

The Republic of Venice was a sovereign state until 1797 and dominated the Adriatic, the Balkans and Cyprus, but the archives also hold documents from northern and western Europe. There are administrative documents in several languages, some of which are now forgotten, in the form of government documents, tax returns, births, marriages, deaths, court documents, documents of monasteries, documents of guilds, maps and plans of town planning.

The archives are carefully digitized via an EU-supported project, the Venice Time Machine. The Conservatives explained that some documents are now so fragile that they dare not open them. They developed an innovative x-ray scanner that can detect traces of copper, iron and zinc in the handwritten ink used on each individual page without having to open a book, and thus reconstruct the content in a forensic fashion.

In 1086, the English and Welsh Domesday survey was completed, primarily for tax collection purposes. On the 900th anniversary in 1986, the BBC, along with Acorn Computers, software company Logica and consumer goods giant Philips, released a new multimedia Domesday.

The BBC Domesday project was carried out largely by schoolchildren who submitted diskettes containing contributions on the geography, history, amenities and social issues of their region, supplemented with photos and maps. The full result of a few million submissions was then posted on a pair of laser discs, which could only be read and browsed on a BBC Acorn computer fitted with an expensive Philips laser disc player. But, in 2002, there were concerns that the entire BBC Domesday project might be lost, as the storage system, disk format, and software had become obsolete after just 16 years. A major project at the universities of Leeds and Michigan barely managed to resuscitate content by writing custom software to emulate the old system, then reformatting it for modern technology.

Images of September 11

The demise of digital archives was illustrated even more recently last month with the 20th anniversary of September 11. Much of the original graphics and video footage was released at the time in a digital format designed by Adobe Inc, a software company specializing in digital publishing. The Adobe “Flash” system for web content then became largely obsolete in 2017. As a result, last month some archival content from major US news organizations was not easily accessible and had to be resuscitated and rebuilt.

Changes in technology and media formats are in turn reflected in the development of consumer devices. There are videos on YouTube showing teens and millennials intrigued by old rotary phones ( Some websites show simulations of old televisions. So, if you can remember how to operate a TV, then they’ll play archival content from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of old TV shows, commercials, cartoons, and news ( Touchscreens are now so ubiquitous that young digital natives can struggle with old formats: There are videos of frustrated toddlers that touching and gesturing on print magazines just doesn’t work. same way as smart tablets ( yaFmQNk).

Decommissioned data centers

Relentless innovation will undoubtedly continue to rapidly evolve the way digital content is presented. Augmented and virtual reality is now becoming mainstream with a new generation of consumer smart glasses and head-up displays for computer augmented orientation, social media and general entertainment. The beckoning metaverse, in which our physical world seamlessly merges with the virtual worlds. We may soon have all of our digital content in the cloud, stored remotely by internet giants in data centers across the planet, so we will no longer need local digital storage.

In the long run, will today’s internet giants survive and will our precious digital content be preserved when data centers inevitably go out of service?

If you’re old enough, you might still have a drawer of floppy disks, CD-Roms, and digital cassettes: but how long will floppy, CD, and cassette players be widely available? While you can still buy an old drive, will the data structures stored on these media be easily understood by today’s software? Are there not similar risks in the future for the data we keep today on USB drives and memory cards?

Venice Time Machine researchers are making extraordinary efforts to recover long-lost local histories of much of Europe from fragile manuscripts. A thousand years from now, how can we ensure that our own digital culture and social artifacts will be accessible to historians? Innovation is needed not only to preserve digital content, but also to archive the detailed description of all data formats and storage structures, so that future software can infer and reconstruct the digital artifacts stored since the beginning of the computer era in the 1950s.

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