Tuesday, May 18, 2010

PLANETS Digital Genome TimeCapsule

The PLANETS (Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services) project, a European Union-supported digital preservation initiative, is coming to an end. The sixteen PLANETS project partners have developed a variety of planning tools, open source software programs, a testbed environment that other repositories can use. They've also produced presentations and papers on a variety of topics ranging from preservation metadata to salvaging of old digital materials and various digital preservation strategies. (FYI, Chris Prom over at Practical E-Records is reporting the results of his tests of various PLANETS products.)

In an effort to highlight the challenges associated with digital preservation, earlier today the PLANETS project placed a Digital Genome TimeCapsule in Swiss Fort Knox, a secure data storage facility housed in a former military nuclear bunker. (Photos of the capsule

The capsule consists of a metal box that contains the following items:
  • Digital objects that are at risk of being lost: a digital photograph (.jpg format), a message (Java), a short digital film (.mov format), a Web page (HTML), and a brochure (.pdf).
  • Versions of these objects that have been converted to file formats that are better suited to long-term preservation (e.g., PDF/A, TIFF).
  • Storage media on which the files comprising these objects have been placed.
  • Hardware and software (including operating system software) needed to read the media.
  • Copies of the conversion tools used to create the preservation versions of these objects.
  • Descriptions of the objects' file formats and the storage media file systems and encodings.
  • Information about the relationship between the objects, supporting technology, and recognized standards.
When the capsule is opened, future researchers will be able to determine how many of the objects can be accessed using only the equipment and information it contains.

PLANETS staff will soon post copies of the digital objects, tools, and information contained within the capsule to the Web so that other researchers can experiment with them well before the capsule is opened. Archives, libraries, and other cultural heritage institutions will also be able to obtain copies of the capsule's contents for exhibition purposes.

The capsule highlights, in a very stark manner, the challenges of digital preservation: PLANETS participants anticipate that future researchers who attempt to access these digital objects using only the hardware, software, storage media, and documentation contained within the capsule will encounter an ever-increasing number of ever-worsening problems. Of course, people struggling to access older data that lacks such extensive documentation will find it even more difficult to do so.

We need more projects of this nature: time capsules containing other types of digital objects, storage media, software, hardware, and documentation should be placed in Iron Mountain and other underground storage facilities throughout the world and to have copies of the materials in these capsules should be made readily accessible. Having access to a large and varied sets of test records whose properties are known and fully documented will be a boon to future digital preservation researchers, and the contents of the capsules themselves may prove invaluable in the event of a catastrophe. (Don't laugh: statistically speaking, we really are overdue for a deadly pandemic, and the next global war will likely have a nuclear component).

Moreover, journalists seem to like producing stories about time capsules, and inviting the media to watch the placement of a capsule in an underground storage facility gives archivists, librarians, computer scientists and other researchers the chance to explain why digital preservation is so difficult. Here's hoping that national archives and libraries and academic institutions outside of Europe step up to the plate and start creating capsules of their own.

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