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After the Flood: Digital Art Recovery in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

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The following is a guest post by Tess Webre, an intern with NDIIPP at the Library of Congress.

Hurricane Sandy Flooding Avenue C 2012, by David Shankbone, on Flickr

Of all the impediments to preservation, disasters fill my heart with the most dread. From the destruction of 60 percent of the Ciambue Crucifix in the 1966 flood of the Arno river, to the crashing of a hard drive, disasters can have untold lasting effects on cultural heritage. From a digital perspective, disasters can be all the more devastating, and The Signal has discussed this before. However, I recently came across a story that highlights the need for preparation in the case of disasters to ensure the longevity of digital data.

Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, an art gallery located in New York City specializing in new technology and media arts, came face to face with the threat that disasters can pose to digital data when Hurricane Sandy caused flooding of the gallery’s archive. In an article written shortly after the hurricane, Eyebeam resident Jonathan Minard described the damage as “three feet of saltwater mixed with sewage and chemicals, claiming over $250,000 worth of AV equipment, computers and books.” Shortly after the flooding subsided, professional and student volunteers offered assistance in retrieving material. During these efforts, Minard released a video to highlight the Eyebeam recovery efforts that can be viewed here.

With this assistance, Eyebeam was able to salvage 1,500 digital and analogue storage media containing unique art from their fifteen-year history. Due to a fundraising effort, they were also able to replace equipment damaged by the flooding with their donations. The efforts are documented in an exhibit hosted earlier in January entitled: Eyebeam Resurfaces: The Future of the Digital Archive. The exhibit, only two months after the storm, gave the gallery a chance to highlight the recovery efforts following Sandy as well as display some of the saved collections from the archive. Curators describe the exhibit as “a conversation about the long term future of digital media and what it takes to preserve artifacts of our time.” The trailer for the exhibit can be viewed here.

Eyebeam, by Steve Lambert, on Flickr

Though this story has a happier ending, it underscores issues for everyone wishing to ensure the security and longevity of their data. Any sort of disaster – not just natural — can wreak havoc on digital data and the damage can be irreparable. It is possible to recover material after such disasters, but an easier solution is to account for and prevent damage before it occurs. Creating a digital disaster plan is the first step in accomplishing this.

Need help making a disaster plan? Try some of these tips to get started.

  • Getting digital data organized is the first step in any digital preservation project. Start by identifying data, deciding which data is worth saving, and giving the data appropriate names and descriptive metadata. See the NDIIPP personal digital archiving advice here for more information.
  • Start thinking of possible disaster scenarios that could damage the data, making them as open-ended as possible. For example, these could include natural or man-made disasters, hardware failures, network errors, network security and external attacks, software failure, media failure or obsolescence. Remember that data can go out with a bang or a whimper. When thinking of possible scenarios, always assume the worst, then take that into account when coming up with solutions.
  • Find ways to preserve updated copies of your data in geographically disparate locations. It also might be beneficial to find a trusted digital repository to store master copies. Try creating a routine for backing up the data and sticking to it.
  • I love the video series from Digital Preservation Europe called Team Digital Preservation that highlight possible disaster scenarios and steps to take to avoid them. It’s possible to view them here.
  • For more resources see the NDIIPP site.

Until next time, I wish you all safe data.


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