Publish And Perish
Elisabeth Eaves, 12.01.06, 12:00 PM ET
Nothing is safe. Not your e-mails, digital photos or Word files. Not old newspapers or books. When it comes to storing information, everything will disappear into digital obsolescence or crumble to dust.
Even White House e-mails, important blueprints and influential works of 20th-century literature–the very artifacts that you’d expect would be carefully preserved–are at risk of being lost forever.
The National Archives and Records Administration, the agency responsible for preserving the federal government’s documents, realized in the 1990s that it couldn’t cope with the digital era using its old electronic storage system of magnetic tapes. The White House under the Bush Administration alone will generate as many as 100 million e-mails. Copying them would take years. NARA has contracted Lockheed Martin (nyse: LMT – news – people ) to build a federal digital archive, but the system won’t be ready until at least September of 2007.
The Library of Congress, meanwhile, ditched most of its original newspaper collection after transferring the content to microform, which uses a machine to read film. But Nicholson Baker, in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, says the medium is at least as iffy as paper: Some early acetate films “shrink, buckle, bubble or stick together in a solid illegible lump,” he writes. In the ’80s libraries switched to polyester-based films. But some types of polyester films are prone to spots, others attract fungus and another suffered “complete image loss” when exposed to the high heat of common microform readers.