Letters to the Editor

The Importance of Digital Preservation

April 22, 2012

To the Editor:

In "Digital Magic: Preservation for a New Era" (The Chronicle Review, March 16), Matthew Kirschenbaum pleads, "Surely someone, somewhere, is on the job" of digital preservation of computer content. Here at Carnegie Mellon University, we (Gloriana St. Clair and Mahadev Satyanarayanan, with his IBM partner Vas Bala) are engaged in Olive, a project that will eventually create both the technology and the ecosystem necessary for preserving computer software, games, and other executables.

Of course, our approach isn't magic, but it does involve emulation. Building from our work on Internet Suspend/Resume (OpenISR), Satya and Vas are using virtual-machine technology to approach this complex preservation problem. (We explain the science in an interview for the Library of Congress's blog The Signal: Digital Preservation.)

While we may approach this work, as Kirschenbaum notes, "bit by bit," eventually libraries and all their academic and corporate partners will have to work together on this monumental challenge. Much of our culture now resides digitally and is as worthy of preservation as its analog counterparts.

Gloriana St. Clair
Dean of University Libraries
Mahadev Satyanarayanan
Professor of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University

From chronicle.com:

I'm really pleased with this article. Recently I earned an M.S. in digital forensics. An area of interest that I was unable to pursue was the conversion of data from archaic systems to current computing platforms. This is a huge problem because card decks have deteriorated or been lost; magnetic tape has in many instances been erased, sold, or overwritten; and hardware/emulators/tape drives are almost impossible to find. Almost no one is interested in funding this area, and valuable research that was done in the 60s, 70s, and 80s is being rapidly lost.

On another extreme, if you want to commit a cybercrime, do it with an 8-bit computer with a period operating system and see who can analyze what you've done. It is a very sad commentary.