In 100 years, will today's digital files be accessible? Planning for 'digital obsolescence' | St. Louis Public Radio

In 100 years, will today's digital files be accessible? Planning for 'digital obsolescence'

Aug 2, 2017

If you’ve happened to glance through an old family album, it is likely you’ve found photographs still around from over a century ago. Perhaps, too, you’ve found old letters your grandparents wrote one another or an old ticket stub to the movies.

These artifacts help build a more complete story of the lives of those from yesteryear. Those stories are important on a personal and institutional level when it comes to collective memory.

Which begs the question: what will happen to memories created in this era, the majority of which are stored in digital file formats? What will happen if files like mp3s, jpegs, gifs, tweets, Facebook posts and Word documents are no longer readable? Or the hardware to read such files is hard to access, as is the case with VHS tapes or LaserDisc?

Robert Manley, digital asset coordinator for Washington University Libraries.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the idea of “digital obsolescence” and how librarians, archivists and digital media managers are tackling the problem. They also offer some ideas on how you can be sure your memories are accessible for the future that lies ahead.

The first rule of digital preservation? "Replication. Redundancy. Planned migration," said Chris Martinez, the manager of media archives and digital assets for the Missouri History Museum.

That means, create several version of the thing you want to save, keep the file in multiple places and remember to move files before the way of accessing the file becomes obsolete. 

"I think we are all going to become archivists and digital asset managers in the future," Martinez said.

Martinez joined the program alongside Robert Manley, the digital asset coordinator for Archives and Special Collections at Washington University, and Vernon Mitchell, the administrative lead for DocNow, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project to archive and preserve 12 million tweets and social media posts from the Ferguson protests. Mitchell is based at Washington University, where he serves as the curator of popular and American arts for the Washington University Libraries.

Chris Martinez, digital media manager, Missouri History Museum.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

"One of the more imminent dangers is storage of media that people have lying around their house: old digital cameras, old SD cards, old computers," Manley said. "Say they never got their content off of there, that stuff over time breaks down and as it breaks down it becomes harder and harder to get files off of there. If you do have old cell phones, they may have a lot of files you took. I think it is important to get on that phone while you still have the cord and get photos off of it." 

Another thing to be cognizant of is storing your digital memories with proprietary systems that may go out of date, or shutter (see: SoundCloud, Adobe Flash). This is no more relevant than when it comes to social media, where many people share up-to-the-moment memories in picture, word, or video form. 

DocNow is piloting several techniques of archiving social media posts from a specific event, the Ferguson protests, for academics and community members to sift through and use for later research. On a personal level, there are other ways to archive your social media footprint, such as by downloading your Facebook profile

Listen to the full discussion of issues and solutions in the world of preserving digital artifacts and memories:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.