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We Are On The Edge of Permanently Losing Our Past

by Larry Jordan

My son, Paul, is a digital archivist with ten years experience working with large firms like the IMF, NATO and, now, Brown University. (Brown is an Ivy League school, as are Harvard, Princeton and Yale, among others.). Over the years, Paul and I have talked about the challenges of preserving our digital past.  As you will read, we are on the edge of losing decades of our digital history and, unless we take action now – as individuals and developers – within a few years most media assets from the 1960’s onward will be lost. The problem is far more serious than I thought.

Over the years I’ve written about the need to archive our projects and media assets for the long term. In my mind, that meant moving them from spinning hard disks to something more long-term, such as LTO tape.

But, simply moving media to a different storage medium is not the complete answer. The ability to recover media from the past requires five essential components:

  • Media archived on hardware that can still be accessed
  • Software that can open and play the archived media
  • An operating system that can support the software for playback
  • Hardware that can host the operating system and software
  • Archives that include media AND software AND operating systems to allow future recovery.

Brown is a large, well-endowed and supported university. Yet, even with all its resources, it had no plans or ability to recover these stored assets. It took an individual with a 15 year old computer sitting on a shelf, along an archived version of ProTools that was 18 years old, plus a LOT of tinkering to get these files to play.

And these files are ONLY 20 years old! What happens in another 20 years? All our history is lost – stored on hardware we can’t access, using discontinued codecs and operating systems that died long ago. Restoring the past rests far too much on chance, which is never a good method of preservation.

You can read the rest of Larry Jordan’s commentary, plus a very good case study by his son Paul on archiving audio files at Brown University, over at