Archivists Grapple With Problems Of Preserving Recent Culture Held On Tape Cassettes And Floppy Drives

Most Techdirt readers probably surround themselves with the latest technology. But there’s a slightly unusual class of professionals who are only now beginning to grapple with things like CP/M,8-inch floppy disk drives and the Apple Lisa. These are the archivists, whose job is preserving cultural artifacts from all periods of history. That includes the recent past, whose technologies now seem paradoxically so strange and distant. The real-life consequences of that growing chasm between today’s digital technologies, and those that were commonplace 10, 20 or 30 years ago, are made evident in an article published by the Guardian last week:

In the belly of a former whisky store in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick lies a vast and varied collection of artefacts that feminist scholars can’t wait to get their hands on.

Nearly 500 boxes in this dark, temperature-controlled warehouse hold a lifetime of handwritten letters, browning manuscripts and newspaper clippings.

But there are more modern treasures too: floppy disks containing an unpublished book about Margaret Thatcher; two computers, a Mac Powerbook G4 and iMac G5; and voicemail recordings about dinner plans in 1976.

These are all part of the archives of the well-known Australian writer Germaine Greer. According to the article, Greer has been hoarding personal documents and artifacts from the 1950s to the present day, which means they are in both analog and digital forms:

Greer’s archive includes floppy disks, tape cassettes and CD-roms, once cutting-edge technologies that are now obsolete. They are vulnerable to decay and disintegration, leftovers from the unrelenting tide of technological advancement. They will last mere decades, unlike the paper records, which could survive for hundreds of years.

It is an irony of these formerly high-tech holdings that they are far less durable than old-fashioned paper-based systems. And researchers studying them face problems of compatibility that simply don’t arise with paper. This is a major issue that is only now being faced, as cultural figures of Greer’s generation pass on their archives to universities and libraries, who must start to grapple with the core tasks of deciphering and preserving them.

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