Preservation Can Be Message to Future

What seems insignificant now can become important later.

July 10, 2001 — -- Walt Whitman wrote poems for his masterwork, Leaves of Grass, on scraps of paper picked up off the floor of the printing office where he worked.

Apparently, as he wrote more poems, he fastened the slips together in different orders with straight pins that were used in the days before paper clips — something that might once have seemed like an insignificant detail.

At the time, who knew pinholes could say so much?

Maybe nobody, archivists say.

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Likewise, few considered that advertisements and graphic design in old newspapers and magazines — thought of by some as space filler when they were published — would be such a treasure trove to modern-day historians about prices, products and cultures of the past.

"Seeing the original document tells a lot more of the story about the creative process than looking at [a modern-day printing of] a portable Viking Faulkner at Barnes & Noble," Moore says. "You can really see the paper. You can smell the document. You can see the ink. … You can see if there are cross-outs or if there are no cross-outs."

What’s Important?

Few know for sure what about today's e-mails, Internet content and digital files people will find valuable, which is why archivists are trying to save as much as they can right now.

The Library of Congress is involved and is working with other organizations to save content from these still-early days of the Web, which might otherwise perish, yet may say a lot about modern culture to future generations.

"The name of the game today, obviously, is the Internet and the Web and trying to capture [it] in some meaningful way," says Marc Roosa, director of preservation for the Library of Congress. "I don't think we know if we've lost a significant portion of it yet, because I think we're still too early in the digital era to know. I think as far as commercially available digital materials are concerned, a lot of them are still out there."

Moore says potentially famous authors presumably still take hard-copy notes and make printouts of work, and historians may be interested in those one day. But, she notes, some literary researchers do not yet have a lot of experience working with history as it is commonly written now — digitally.

"In 20 years, we will try to find first editions of their works, and we will look for their papers on the market," she says. "If they have stuff on disk, and we collect their disks, that means we have to have technology to be able to read their disks. … We're still buying Mark Twain letters. We haven't really grappled with somebody from the [19]90s yet."

Others worry that digital materials may break down or be intentionally erased, and data traditionally sought by historians may not survive far enough into the future to be usable.

"Ask people to try to get electronic mail they wrote 10 years ago," says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. "It's gone."

But with such a huge volume of digital information, it may not be possible — for financial and practical reasons — to save everything, archivists note. They must make value judgements. In some cases, they may have to simplify documents from their original formats to ones that future computers are more likely to understand, and that may mean a loss of information.

"When you come down to it people will do their best to preserve what they can given economic constraints," says Mick Bass, project manager for the HP/MIT DSpace Project, which is preserving digital scholarly material at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Dimensions that may be important to preserve [are difficult] to anticipate. Are people going to care 50 years from now how documents were paginated? I don't know. Most people would guess, not likely."

Traditional Methods

With such uncertainty, an organization trying to frame history for an audience even farther in the future is sticking with analog formats.

The Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based group, is working on a "Rosetta Disk," a compendium of information in 1,000 spoken and computer languages that it hopes will allow future civilizations to decipher other surviving historical sources. The disk — an effort to create a modern day Rosetta Stone, the tablet whose discovery allowed translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics — will contain 30,000 pages of physical text on a 3-inch nickel disk.

"Digital storage materials have a variety of vulnerabilities that make them essentially the most ephemeral storage medium we've created to date," says Jim Mason, director of the Rosetta Project. "On our long-term storage disk, we're not encoding in a digital standard. It's not ones and zeros, it's actual words etched on a disk. The words will always be there. You get a microscope and read it."

So for now, the old ways may still be most certain to endure.

"If you write something on a stone tablet and you cast it in a cave, it will stay there for a long time, most likely," says Kurt Bollaker, the foundation's digital research director. "If it's printed on a piece of paper, if it's a good quality acid-free piece of paper, it's going to be readable hundreds of years from now."