Problems already troubling the country’s libraries may spill over into industries whose archives have gone digital.

Problems already troubling the country’s libraries may spill over into industries whose archives have gone digital. The supposed “paperless” office has yet to arrive; but many offices do rely heavily on digital copies for work and records currently on the shelf. The space savings and orderliness of plans and billings kept on disk compared to paper have led many to shred originals.
However, anyone who’s tried to open a floppy on a Macintosh knows, media and software quickly become obsolete. Also, software wars also mean that the program that wrote your work three years ago can be eaten by the competition, leaving you no choice but to switch to the market standard.

“The layman’s view is that digital information is more secure, when in fact it’s far more ephemeral,” says Abby Smith, director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources. The nonprofit is working with the Library of Congress to fund research on a long-term solution. “We know how to keep paper intact for hundreds of years. But digital information is all in code. Without access to that code, it’s lost.”

Often the medium is itself inherently unstable. Magnetic tape has been known to degrade within a decade, beyond the point where information can be recovered. Video and audio tape are equally fragile and unreliable for long-term storage. In its inherent physical fragility, magnetic tape is not different in essence from the acid paper so widely produced in the last 150 years, but its life span is often dramatically shorter than that of poor quality paper, Smith says.