Copyright 2002 www.theguardian.co.uk

[ February 28th 2002 ]

The digital age may only just have dawned, but last night a group of eminent institutions issued a warning that large swaths of the nation's digital heritage risk being lost for ever without urgent action to preserve them. While the average website or email would hardly qualify to be described as vital cultural artefacts, electronic information and communications are now so vital to every aspect of daily life that future generations could find an enormous "black hole in Britain's collective memory" if important digital material is allowed to disappear, according to the Digital Preservation Coalition.

At risk is everything from government records, which would previously have been published on paper but which now exist only in electronic form, to scientific data, computer games and personal websites, representatives of the coalition - made up of 17 British libraries, museums, archiving organisations and academic bodies - told a meeting at the House of Commons. Its warning comes amid a growing realisation internationally that society's increasing reliance on information and communications technology raises serious problems with guaranteeing long term access to material which is available only in formats that are likely to become technologically obsolete.

The task of archiving even a small slice of important digital material is massive. While books hundreds of years old can still be read, electronic material from just a few years ago may already have been lost because it was only available briefly online or was preserved in an obsolete form. The ephemeral, do it yourself nature of the internet also poses a huge challenge. Internet users may feel deluged by the vast amounts of information available online, with thousands of new pages appearing every day, the vast majority of it of little general interest.

But with the average web page enjoying an online lifespan of barely four weeks, institutions like the British Library are now working on ways to select material worthy of preservation from the millions of web pages before it disappears, and store it in a way which allows access for future generations.

"A lot of people think the web is just porn and music downloads," Helen Shenton, head of collections care at the British Library told the Guardian. Much of it certainly is, but there is also a lot of important stuff, ephemeral publications, for example, which would have been published on paper before but now only exist as a web page."

As the legal repository for every book published by a UK imprint, the British Library receives about 150,000 paper publications a year to archive. But it believes that thousands of digital publications are being lost. Since January 2001, when it launched a voluntary repository for electronic material, it has received only about 3,000 items, a fraction of the amount which should be preserved.

Loyd Grossman, broadcaster and chairman of the Campaign for Museums, contrasted the experience of email with that of the telegram. While the first telegram was preserved and has now been digitised, the first email, sent 31 years ago, has been lost. Little is known about its contents other than it was in upper case. Mr Grossman said: "Email took many years to become today's pervasive form of communication and we are now beginning to realise how digital materials are more ephemeral than traditional materials. "Sometimes the significance of key developments in new technologies may take several years to be recognised. The implications for our intellectual and cultural record and their preservation are profound."

Copyright (c) 2000 - 2022 tombraiderchronicles.com
tombraiderchronicles.com is completely independent and not owned or operated by Square Enix Ltd.
Lara Croft and Tomb Raider are trademarks of Square Enix Ltd.