Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Information Overload – Aug 2017 – Eating the Elephant One Byte at a Time

Shirley R Cowcher

Found by Chance

I recently read an article about the discovery of technical drawings of the Second World War aircraft the De Havilland Mosquito. It appears that the microfilm cards were located in the corner of a wartime factory that was about to be bulldozed. I was amazed to read that these may be the only complete set of technical engineering drawings for the Mosquito. They are now going to assist in the restoration of one of these wonderful aircraft to aviation safety standards, allowing it to be flown. I’m not sure what happened to the paper source records but I was pleased that the microfilm cards had survived. Given where they were found, I’m not sure we can consider that they were stored there as a formal archive collection (but who knows).
In reading the article it made me ponder how many finds like this will occur in the future? Given that the first Mosquito was built in 1941 and the last was built in November 1950 the original drawings are at least 67 years old. The article didn’t indicate how old the microfilm cards were, but obviously not as old as the paper source records. The sheer volume of microfilm cards found would tend to indicate that the source records had been filmed to reduce the storage requirements of the drawings and perhaps even for ease of access and retrieval. The advantage of microfilm is its longevity and the need for only light and magnification in order to view it, and as such, more than 60 years later, these records, once found, can be viewed and used.
Apply that same story to records created today. Given the method of creation and capture of engineering drawings, photographs and most other records today, in 2017, will they be accessible in 2084? Will there be any chance of a person stumbling over them accidentally and marvelling at the treasure they have just found? I would hope so but I’m not that confident.

Gone Forever

In 2015, Google’s vice-president at the time, Vint Cerf, told members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians” due to “bit rot” and the programs needed to access records becoming defunct. Bit rot is the slow deterioration of data stored on a storage medium. It may come about as a result of the deterioration of the storage medium itself, or the flipping of bits which make the data/file unreadable by software applications. 
The National Archives of Australia, in promoting a digital preservation policy for the Australian government identify that digital records “… are at risk of being lost due to the rapid pace of development in computer hardware, operating systems and application software, coupled with the short effective life of most physical storage media”. We know we have a problem but have we any idea how to solve it or is it the elephant in the room? It may not even be the elephant in the room for some organisations. If they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t even notice that large grey animal in the corner or they just don’t know what it is.
In the past, we kept records in original form or created photographic images of them as microfilm/fiche. We then placed them in an environment that was conducive to long term preservation. There was some concern about the quality of the paper or film but we were generally successful in holding on to our history. Microfilm/fiche was the equivalent of migration for the records. It must be acknowledged that the quality of some of the microfilm images left a lot to be desired. Quality control wasn’t always suitably applied. Nonetheless, there was at least a chance that sometime in the future we could stumble over the records, stacked in the corner of an old building, and be able to view them (even if they are out of focus).
Nowadays, we may come across a grave yard of old computers, disk drives (internal and external), floppy disks, tapes and tape drives, USB flash drives and memory cards all of which may contain many hundreds or even thousands of records. We can marvel at the technology but have no idea about the type and value of the records they contain because without hardware and/or software the records held on these storage mediums are not accessible. They are lost forever.

Digitisation is not Digital Preservation

With the acceleration of technology we can assume that the majority of records created by an organisation are likely to be in electronic format. That is, the records are born digital. These electronic records will be in various formats and require different software to access them. They will also need to be migrated and transferred as software and hardware are updated. And, they won’t always be in a formal records management system or EDRMS. Many, if not most will be in business systems and various forms of social media and web 2.0 technologies.
Where paper still exists, organisations are opting to digitise the paper records for any number of reasons, including:
• Reduction of storage costs;
• Improving process times through access and workflow; and
• Long term retention.
Digitised records may also be in different formats requiring different software for access and will need to be migrated and transferred over time. Digitisation does not guarantee long-term access to the records. Kristin Snawder, in a blog posted by the Library of Congress on The Signal, in 2011, outlines the risks of scanning. She reminds us that scanning is a time-limited process whilst digital preservation is a long-term commitment. Digital preservation requires the organisation to face and address issues associated with technological advancements, digital decay, data integrity and storage and economic sustainability. 
An organisation that has its records in electronic format is at risk of losing all of its corporate memory if it has not addressed the issues associated with long term storage and access to the records. In other words digital preservation is not recognised as an essential business process.

Eat it One Byte at a Time

If you have only just noticed your elephant in the room, don’t panic but be concerned. There are certainly many aspects to the topic so start small. Fortunately, there are many resources available to provide you with guidance on digital preservation. Here are a few resources which may be of assistance:

While the topic seems daunting I would advise you to address it like any other project: Develop a project plan; be realistic about what you can achieve; set a sensible timeframe and become familiar with the options open to you; make sure you have management support and the necessary resources; and monitor and review your progress. By making good use of the range of resources available to you and planning for success, you will have little problem with eating that elephant one byte at a time.