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Digital Preservation 2014 Session Preview: Preserving and Rescuing Heritage Information on Analog Media

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Griffin, Volunteer Visitor at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Canada, and Chair of the CODATA “Data at Risk” Task Group.  This is part of an ongoing series of posts to highlight and preview the Digital Preservation 2014 program.   Elizabeth previews the session she’s helped organize, “Preserving and Rescuing Heritage Information on Analog Media,” scheduled for Wednesday, July 23 from 9-10:15 am.

"The first pictures with sound." Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
“The first pictures with sound.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Natural Sciences and the Arts are often perceived as two contrasting strands of the human environment: the factual versus the fanciful, the technological versus the intangible.  However, in the realm of historic observations, the two disciplines share more than is usually credited.  In particular, they share a common need to access “data” (= information = measurements, records or descriptions) that pre-date the digital era.  This session will examine the interplay entailed.

All studies of long-term changes, whether in the natural physical world or in respect of the humans that live in it, need access to historic data.  Only the older data can inform about past conditions reliably enough for accurate research into changes and evolution.  Most evolutionary changes – whether in the Earth’s atmosphere, land or oceans, or in what lives and grows there – are gradual, so data spanning many decades are required to inform models adequately.

But though the world is rich in such historic data, it is poor in its ability to access them, even today.  Researchers need their data in digital form, but very many essential historical data are only in their original analog states so they are effectively unusable.  Because of this, our basic scientific knowledge and our grasp of true cultural developments suffer.  Born-digital data are at most only 20-30 years old; without access to older scientific data, forecasts of change in the physical world must involve some guesswork..  Nor would students of History, the Arts or the Humanities dream of extrapolating backwards in order to understand how and why events occurred in the way that they did.  This session will illustrate those needs with specific examples.

Scientific measurements made 50-100 years ago constitute an invaluable resource for understanding the natural world and for assessing the impacts of more recent human behavior upon Earth’s vital resources, but their management requires not only scientific acumen but also considerable assistance from archivists, librarians, the general public and even the media.  Historic scientific data are also sources for cultural research: how observations were made and stored, by whom, their context, precision, and their technical limitations.  Understanding and theories were strongly geared to what observations could show, and observations were strongly limited by the precision or availability of then current technology.  Appreciating the context of those limitations is a non-negligible component of modern re-interpretations of those data, both in the Sciences and in the Humanities.

Heritage cultural data offer a parallel yet different route to understanding the evolution of human knowledge.  Demographics pattern developments in mankind’s activities, characteristics, tendencies and directions.  Cultural signals gleaned from historical data and artefacts reveal how our present and our future are shaped, and also how our scientific thinking evolved.  More varied in location and kind, but less so in exactness, those data are not necessarily as objective as purely scientific ones, so their interpretations are broader but fuzzier.

Accessing heritage information correctly and comprehensively is a multi-faceted challenge, involving expert treatment of media such as photographic images, ageing papers and books, early digital devices (tapes, cylinders, optical disks), and confronting other problems with data that cannot be reproduced by one-stage copying.  This session will examine some of those challenges.

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