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The pros and cons of virtual preservation

Matt Mueller scans documents at the Kane County Information Technology Department at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva. The documents will then be archived as a digital file.
Matt Mueller scans documents at the Kane County Information Technology Department at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva. The documents will then be archived as a digital file.

Heidi Krueger spends a lot of time thinking about format.

It’s a pondering that has occupied her mind for some time, ever since Krueger, now a reference librarian and virtual services coordinator at the St. Charles Public Library, visited the Wisconsin State Archives years ago.

She recalled that the archives had a trove of information accessible only on digital tape. And the archives, at the time of her visit, had just one of the machines needed to read the digital tape – a machine that was no longer manufactured.

“All of this information was stored on these tapes, but they were dependent on one obsolete machine,” Krueger said. “All of this information could be lost, just like that.”

At the St. Charles Public Library and other institutions maintaining the troves of information, knowledge and history that link the present to the past, such thoughts are more than just idle musings.

In many of these institutions, the conversation of how to preserve the past – and what elements should be preserved – has come front and center.

Much of the conversation has been spurred by the rapid development of technology.

Image scanners, servers, “the cloud,” and other modern marvels have tantalized archivists, librarians and historians with possibilities for storing more information than ever before – and to do it while emptying closets.

Roger Fahnestock, chief information officer for Kane County’s government, said Kane County years ago began electronically preserving documents, ranging from criminal justice records to contracts and invoices.

The storage of records are subject to state regulation and to the oversight of each county office.

Fahnestock noted the process already has markedly decreased the number of paper documents in county filing cabinets and storage closets, while increasing the ability of county officials to retrieve documents and diversifying where the documents are stored.

“There is an increased demand for eliminating paper,” Fahnestock said. “But we’re still in the early stages of doing a lot of the document management we want to do.”

Likewise, archivists and librarians said technology offers them the chance to do things they were never before capable of.

At the Geneva History Center, curator Jessica McTague said the museum has begun digitizing more than 12,000 local historical photographs.

And at the St. Charles and Batavia public libraries, librarians said they are electronically preserving old documents and records, including phone books, city directories, newspapers, and atlases, which all get heavy use by researchers.

All said the work has been spurred by the desire to enhance public access to the documents but minimize physical damage to the artifacts from light exposure and human handling.

“There’s nothing like handling one of these originals,” said Terry Emma, executive director at the Geneva History Center. “But we’d love to make more things digital and more accessible.”

Along with the promised benefits, the new technology presents preservationists with challenges.

Thanks to the greatly enhanced storage capacity of cyberspace, some may be tempted to believe that every last memo, email, photo or video snippet can be preserved.

And those people would be wrong, archivists say.

To begin, the computers and servers available, while offering vastly more space, have their limits. But there are considerations well beyondstorage capacity that need to be considered.

William Maher, archivist at the University of Illinois Archives in Urbana, said he begins not with the question of whether documents can be preserved, but whether they should be preserved at all.

“Easily, 90 percent of the material that’s created doesn’t need to be kept,” Maher said.

He said it still takes a skilled eye to find the nuggets that may be of value to researchers in coming years.

But even with the material filtered, sorted and cataloged, technology also demands a new cost-benefit analysis.

“We just can’t afford to keep everything,” Maher said.

While devices and software offer great opportunities, they often don’t come cheap.

At the Batavia Public Library, Stacey Peterson, the library’s adult services manager, noted they have begun the process of selecting a vendor to design a system to better digitally preserve the library’s records.

Peterson said the library can’t yet say how much the project might cost.

The uncertainty centers on the likelihood that any such project would stretch on for years, long after the upfront costs for the system have been paid.

“This isn’t just a one-time thing,” Peterson said. “This is going to go on for years.”

After old documents are digitized, archiving and preserving today’s history will only have just begun. And much of that effort will center on keeping up to date with changing technology.

While today’s standards may appear to be a technological peak, in a few years, even the file and data storage formats now available likely will appear antiquated, making it likely that even the best preserved of today’s digital files could become unreadable.

Maher noted many documents created on the computers of the past or stored on old data devices such as floppy disks or zip drives, require older computers with the specific disk drives or the original, out-of-circulation software to decode them.

He said the rate at which computing technology advances and changes only increases the likelihood that documents created today could be lost forever.

That possibility worries others, including Krueger and Peterson.

“We can do all the preservation work up front that we want to,” Krueger said. “But once that’s done, we have to be vigilant about storage and keeping everything up to date.

“If we don’t, even with all the promise this tech brings, there is a real peril here: It could all, one day, just disappear.”

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