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Travels into Several Remote Digital Realms of the World
PART I: A Voyage to Libraryland

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Location: Champaign, Illinois, United States

2005-11-12

Museum Computer Network Conference

Last week I attended the Museum Computer Network conference in Boston. The focus of this years meeting was Digits Fugit! Preserving Knowledge into the Future and featued many sessions on the topic of digital preservation. If you haven't been to MCN I strongly recommend it, as these conferences just get better every year. A call for panels for 2006 should be available soon on the MCN website.

Keeping to the theme our keynote speaker this year was Alexander Rose from the Long Now Foundation. I had learned about Long Now a few years ago after reading about the Rosetta Project.

Some might say their attempt to look ahead to the next 10,000 years is a bit silly. Rose spoke of both the Rosetta Project and the Long Clock project as icons for long-term thinking. Even though many of us are working on the challenges of digital preservations, they are at best a mid-term solution to the problems. As Rose commented, we are now in the digital dark ages. Only a small portion of what we create digitally will be available to future generations. In may cases it's already lost and with the contiued growth of digital appliances in everyday life (digital cameras, iPods, etc.) still more is at risk.

When I was doing digitization training one of the questions that inevitable came up is where to store the large quantity of data that you produced. For larger institutions we're already moving away from static storage like CDs and DVDs. Rose discussed the idea that this isn't "storage" but "movage." Live data will continue to move and migrate to new devices and that static media is just sustainable or safe choice.

One of the more intersting solutions that Rose spoke about was peer-to-peer archiving. Smaller organizations (say museums) do not always have the resources to host large data storage solutions. Using P2P technologies, Rose suggested using individual computers within a network as a distributed storage array. Some academic libraries are already using P2P in the form of the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) project. A collaborative model like LOCKSS would seem an ideal solution for museums if they were able to embrace the idea of distributing their information across the community through P2P. But like many things, the technical problems are far easier to solve than the social/political inertia of the community thatWe a probably would prevent this from ever happening.

A new project of Long Now is the File Format Exchange. The Exchange provides access to utilites that allow digital preservations to migrate files from one format to another. The Exchange will be supported by the community who contributes new files, and also judges which of the file converters might work best. It fills a very immediate need while also encouraging long-term thinking. If you try to convert between proprietary formats, the Exchange will also suggest utilites that convert to open-source or open-standard formats that have a lower risk for long term preservation.

So what does this mean for museums? Rose believes that this only strengthens our role as "memory organizations." With mountains of data, it will still be our responsibility to sort through the chaff in order to identify the things truly worth preserving to the fullest extent. Many LAM professionals have been reluctant to accept the presence of digital things as collection items. Recently we may have turned a corner as we all realize how much of this stuff will be gone in the future. We just don't know all we need to know in order to curate this in a professional manner. How we do this is still unclear, but it may be a task that we can't take on as individual institutions.

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