February 25, 2014

The 100 Year Lie And The Lay Of The Shelf

*Thanks to Kevin Driedger for the inspiration here (and shout out) in his blog post “Time & Media” over at Library Preservation 2.

One of my mantras about media collections and moving from the analog to the digital realm is the fact that reformatting is a necessary component of audiovisual preservation, and the difference between analog and digital in this activity is merely one of the timeline you’re working with. The need to reformat (migrate) is on a shorter scale for digital than with analog (certain beastly formats or brands excepted) but the requirement remains, whether you’re dealing with 5, 20, or 50 year old media.

Kevin Driedger’s recent blog post “Time & Media” has me thinking about this issue in a different light. As he puts forth, I too had thought about such timelines in terms of analog versus digital and media versus systems. In other words, finding a stable medium for analog preservation is the equivalent of establishing a stable system for digital preservation, and that decision point and approach impacts how you monitor and manage collections.

In the audiovisual world, this is where Film is the Only Preservation Format comes in. According to the talking points, film is a 100 year medium, which makes it the ultimate medium for preservation. Leaving the question of the 100 year guess estimate aside, I’ve felt like this has always been a poor argument because, really, 100 years ain’t nothin’. Even when compared just to the sliver of global history where humans have been wreaking havoc, a century is less than a minor marker of passage of time.

One thing I loved about Kevin’s post was how he tied our feelings about the value of a medium to its estimated lifespan and then connected that duration and our valuation to our own fears of mortality. Five years (digital) is scary, but 500+ years (paper) is a relief.

Unless you live in the time of Moses, 100 years sounds awesome, but it’s really just enough time to pass the buck to the next generation. Shelve it and forget it, and things will be all right. To me this has seemed to be the source of one of the main anxieties about digital preservation, because digital files do not tolerate the approach that has seemed to work with most (i.e., paper) collections. Under this approach, audiovisual collections have suffered from neglect, but have still been slightly more resilient than digital collections.

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about these things I tend to make up terms for issues in the field, terms which really only entertain me (because no one wants to listen to me talk about it/put them to sleep in person). I like to think of the topic area here as the 100 Year Lie and the Lay of the Shelf. giggle-1310116075

Just as we don’t know if gold CD-Rs will actually last 500 years (well, actually we do — they won’t) we don’t really know that current film stock will last 100 years (under the right storage conditions) without any appreciable decay because it hasn’t been around that long yet. Yes, there are 100 year old films still in existence, but they are not of the same chemical makeup as contemporary stock, and in those subsequent 100 years there have been many spectacular failures of films stocks in addition to other analog media (paper included).

Again, 100 years sounds nice because it seems like a significant amount of time to our here-and-now brains, and it is also pleasing to us as an anniversary-y type number (not to mention the fact that it is a nice round base10 number that was also a relief to run across in maths class when doing multiplication and division). But it’s just a number, not an authoritative benchmark. It’s also a number that if read in binary would equate to 4 of your human years, so for digital media we’re right on target for 100 years.

Seriously though, what Kevin made me realize is that the system of preservation is always an important factor, because archiving and preservation is an active practice, not a passive one. When dealing with paper or with film, you can’t just leave things be. You still need to do regular checks on condition for major things like mold or infestation, but also for (previously) unexpected things like vinegar syndrome or brittleness or whatever chemical reaction may occur that is a result of the manufacturer’s attempts to save money. This approach is the same when deciding on target formats for preservation, but also when acquiring formats that do not fit into one’s existing workflows. These formats may be digital or newsprint or open reel audio or albumen prints or whatever. The ingest, processing, and management workflows are not the same among all of these formats, and one’s policies should be flexible enough to fit the unexpected, the bizarre, and the banal.

Preservation is not an end point, but a continual process — for any medium or any object. The 100 Year Lie is not one of how long a format will last, but one of the things we tell ourselves that lead to complacency. When you lay that reel, that cassette, that book on the shelf, the spigot of responsibility and vigilance does not shut off until the lifecycle of the format is over and we’re at the point once again of a crisis of decaying assets and not enough resources to deal with them. Planning for 100 years of neglect will lead to neglect. Planning a system of preservation management leads to preservation action that is adaptable to a 5 year or a 500 year format.

Joshua Ranger

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  1. Josh, these are some of the issues I have recently pondered about in some recent blog posts (see below). Some thoughts:

    1. It seems silly to talk about “lifetimes” (except *maybe* in small digital packets) since media tends not to die, but slowly fade. “Permanence” may be a better term.

    2. Media permanence (including film and paper), as any conservator knows, depends heavily on storage conditions, and these are active processes as you well point out.

    3. Ultimately it may be a mater of resources: Is it more cost-effective to store the content you wish to extract in one format or another? In that case, setting a time factor seems very sensible in order to make calculations. Taking a cue from engineers, they certainly know the costs and signal loss per mile of different media, and can then decide on how to proceed. These numbers are still sorely missing in our field.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the comment, Marcos. And I love what you’ve been doing on the WNYC blog — really thoughtful and illuminating stuff. You’re absolutely right that media fades rather than dies — both in respect to individual items and in respect to broader obsolescence. It frequently is a slow fade, during which time you can still capture at least fragments or a ghost of the original signal, but in some cases it can be rather decisive. We do tend to use “lifecycle” to get across the sense that the content can move on, even at the point that the physical media is still viable, but it’s still a good point that it’s difficult to put things in terms of a set lifespan. That being said, I can’t recall if it was in the office we were talking about it or I came across it somewhere else, but though many people talk about the lifecycle of media we never really acknowledge or think through the indisputable end of the material, as if we will just be able to keep things going through endless cycles.

      I hadn’t thought about creating a measurement baseline, and I like the reference to engineers and signal loss. One of my main beefs here is with pulling a nice sounding number out of a hat and then saying anything that doesn’t meet this number fails. And it is a matter of not having those numbers. The science of audio and broadcasting is well documented and measurable, but I don’t think we can truly say that we have inconvertible proof of a film format consistently lasting 100 years without some physical failure. There certainly may be the potential, but…

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