A question popped up in the blogosphere recently. “Where is our Atlas of Digital Damages?” asked Barbara Sierman of the National Library of the Netherlands.
She pointed out the amazement that would greet evidence of physical books, safely stored, with spontaneous and glaring changes in their content or appearance. “Panic would be huge if this would happen in our libraries and archives.” That statement is certainly correct. Nearly everyone expects libraries and archives to have the basic resources to keep physical documentation stable, intact and fixed.
Sierman bravely points out, however, that digital items are very much at risk of loss and corruption–even when libraries and archives manage the material. Digitization sometimes yields mistakes, storage systems fail, older files rendered in newer computing environments behave oddly.
While digital preservation practitioners are well aware of this risk, Sieman called for some visual evidence to prove the point. Such evidence would, she reasoned, help make the case for a robust preservation infrastructure as well as help drive discussion about acceptable degrees of loss and the significant characteristics for digital objects.
“Because there lies a real risk for the digital collections, but making it visible with examples. it will be more convincing than all the conference papers that we have written about the digital preservation challenge.”
Her argument spurred action, and The Atlas of Digital Damages now is up and running on Flickr. This is a crowdsourced effort, and anyone can upload pictorial evidence of bits gone bad. There are currently a few dozen images available, but it is easy to imagine building quite a large collection of compelling images.
I have a few candidate images myself. Up until now, I kept them out of something like a perverse artistic appreciation, thinking perhaps they conveyed some fanciful insight into what machines see (or don’t see). Computers may not lie, but they surely can get confused.
The picture to the left, for example, suffered corruption during transfer to Flickr. A special irony is that the picture was taken of a recent exhibit of old computer hardware and media to demonstrate the tentative status of digital information. An unintended outcome, to be sure, but indicative (and evocative) evidence of maintaining fidelity for digital objects over time.
Do you have any graphical evidence of digital damage? If so, please consider sharing it so that we can help people understand what is at risk for our digital heritage.