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At Libraries, Taking the (Really) Long View (from “Inside Higher Education”)

Posted by Editor on July 23, 2008

One of the benefits of digitally encoded content is that it can’t deteriorate. With files that consist of 1’s and 0’s, there are no pages to turn yellow or brittle, tape to demagnetize or bindings to snap. In theory, that would be a boon to libraries that devote boundless resources to preserving old documents, ancient texts and even videos recorded in Betamax.

But as libraries shift more of their resources to holdings that either originate as digital or become digital through scanning, it’s become clear that just because something lives in the virtual stacks doesn’t mean it will be around forever. Anyone who’s ever suffered through a hard drive crash (or tried futilely to save a scratched DVD) has faced the inherent physical limitations of digital storage. Now librarians are having to do the same as they determine how digital holdings fit into their central mission: preserving works so that they can be accessed not just today, not just tomorrow, but indefinitely.

And for anyone who’s also worked through a mere “upgrade” in file formats or e-mail clients, it’s probably not a stretch to assert that in computer time, 10 years might as well be infinity. What does that make 100?

So, in a literal race against time — but one with a perpetually receding deadline — librarians from research universities and other institutions around the world are collaborating to tackle a whole host of problems that so far have no satisfactory solution…

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