As photos fade, texts crumble, U.S. archives tries to save data
In race to save digital, 2 firms seek everlasting
By Tricia Bishop,
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
"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
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
"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.
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.
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