As photos fade, texts crumble, U.S. archives tries to save data

In race to save digital, 2 firms seek everlasting

By Tricia Bishop, Sun Staff

August 4, 2004

WASHINGTON - Finding ways to preserve and use old records - fading photographs, books with pages turning to dust, or even not-so-ancient reel-to-reel and eight-track recordings - is an understandable challenge.

But now archivists and librarians find themselves dealing with something far more surprising - the digital formats currently being used to preserve much of America's fragile history are themselves proving to be dangerously vulnerable.

"Much of the information of the 21st century and the late 20th century will be lost if we don't do something," said L. Reynolds Cahoon, an assistant archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The world, and the U.S. government, are increasingly moving from paper records to electronic ones. Billions of pieces of information are digitized, including military personnel records, Social Security accounts, nuclear-plant designs and border-safety plans. But while electronic data - such as digital photos or word documents on floppy disks - are easily reproduced and take up little physical space, they are easily erased, have a short shelf life and are often delivered by a system that quickly becomes obsolete.

The National Archives, which manages records for the federal government, is losing data every day as new technology replaces the old. So, with the goal of finding the holy grail of records permanency, the agency awarded $20 million yesterday to a pair of companies in a competition that seems impossible: designing an everlasting technology to house the nation's history.

"No one can today guarantee to our military forces that these electronic records can be preserved," said Kenneth Thibodeau, director of the project, dubbed the Electronic Records Archive. The new system - whatever it might be - will make that promise, he said.

Obsolete technologies

During a news conference yesterday at the National Archives, where the nation's most revered documents of American independence are displayed, Cahoon drove home the point. He held aloft relics of data storage - computer punch cards, an eight-track cassette tape and a black 5 1/4 -inch floppy disk. "Just as these technologies have become obsolete and the information on them inaccessible," he said, so will the information stored on today's technology: thumb drives, zip disks, CD-ROMs.

Other government offices are also feeling the pressure to preserve. The Smithsonian Institution began busily capturing images in digital formats several years ago, said Shannon Perich, a specialist at the National Museum of American History. But archivists later realized they needed a hard-copy backup such as slides or transparencies in case the technology changes and "those [digital] files don't convert," Perich said.

The National Archives administration has spent six years outlining the problem and creating a technology wish list. It solicited bids from various companies and yesterday chose Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin and Florida-based Harris Corp. to begin the work. It granted each a one-year contract worth about $10 million.

The companies will spend the next nine months researching a solution to digital data decay. The winner could land a contract worth $500 million.

For now, the companies and records administration are talking mostly in generalities and hypotheticals, reflecting the unusual challenge. The new technology will have to last over time and be universal enough to entice others to adopt it, including those in the business and commercial sectors - potentially around the world.

"It's very, very hard to make that happen," said William G. LeFurgy, digital initiative project manager at the Library of Congress, which is working with the National Science Foundation to create electronic standards of its own. "One of the great things about information technology is there's a lot of diversity and innovation. That kind of works against moving toward one particular standard."

Warring standards in technology are as old as the wheel. Beta battled VHS for videocassette rights 20 years ago, and today differing standards have delayed the adoption of high-speed wireless and radio frequency identification tag technologies.

Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed Martin's Transportation and Security Solutions division, said he hopes to develop a format that isn't dependent on a specific program to be accessed - something like a DVD player that could run VHS cassettes and reel-to-reel film. The greatest challenge, he said, will be in anticipating integration with "technology that has not yet been created or even imagined."

Bob Henry, president of Harris Corp.'s government division, said his biggest concern is coming up with a system that could digest the huge amount of data within the National Archives. Several million, billion electronic bits will have to be processed.

Rivals for contract

The two companies involved are quite different: Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, has 130,000 employees, recorded $32 billion in sales last year and has worked on countless electronic and security projects for the government. Harris, based in Melbourne, Fla., has 10,000 employees, half of them engineers and scientists, and recorded $2 billion in sales last year.

The archives will award a final contract to one of the companies by next summer. Cahoon said he expects the winning system to have "initial operating capabilities" by late 2007, with full operation by 2011.

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Technology shelf lives

- Videotape and film: 10 years

- Floppy disks and super disks: 10 to 30 years

- Recordable DVDs and CDs: 30 to 100 years

- Stone carvings and treated paper: centuries

Copyright (c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun