Why Bits Can Byte the Dust

Some fear our history may be in jeopardy. Here are some reasons why.

July 9, 2001 — -- When computers came into common use, some archivists and historians got excited over the possibilities of collecting and saving large amounts of digital data.

But a number of pitfalls have arisen, and now some fear our history may be in jeopardy. Following are some reasons why.

Bit Decay

Digital information and the media it is stored on are perishable. Tapes, CDs, hard drives and other storage devices break down over time, and eventually become brittle or less able to retain the digital information magnetically encoded on them. Archivists claim data stored on common media -- such as some recordable tapes, floppy disks, CDs and other products -- can suddenly become unreadable over years, rather than decades or centuries. Manufacturers often claim greater longevity for their products.

Changing Ways

People just don't write letters anymore, the common curmudgeonly complaint goes. Now, they e-mail. And unlike well-thought-out letters people often think of e-mail as temporary and disposable. Some speculate that could leave a void for future biographical researchers. Literary researchers may have similar problems if early drafts of noteworthy novels -- often studied by scholars in paper form -- get deleted or overwritten in word processors.

The Law

Whereas libraries and archives preserve copyrighted paper material, they often cannot legally copy and store certain copyrighted Web pages and digital publications. Likewise, online archives often do not hold the rights to reproduce freelance articles printed in their namesake paper publications. Also, some say fear of legal costs and liabilities cause the destruction of digital records, because they might otherwise be subject to costly review by lawyers in lawsuits -- even if they are not legally relevant.


Because most forms of digital storage are considered perishable, people must "migrate" their data every five to 10 years to ensure that it is not lost or corrupted. There is always the danger of archives running out of funding, or of private companies or citizens simply forgetting to convert their data in time.


With computer and software technology changing rapidly, the tools needed to read documents and data become obsolete quickly. If somebody has old tapes, or 8- or 5 1/4-inch floppy disks in their desk drawer, they may not be able to find the proper drives or software to read them.

More in This Series:

Will Digital Era Mean End of History?

Archivists Scramble to Save Digital Era

Preservation Can Be Message to Future

Virtual Museum Remembers Dead Web Sites