Digital Records Are Fading Fast

Ransom Riggs

I'm a collector of vintage snapshots. (Here are some I've collected, from another post.) Besides the thrill of finding something beautiful and historically significant in a bin of unsorted Polaroids, there's also the knowledge that you're rescuing images from oblivion -- the trash. Vintage snapshots and postcards are often referred to by the catch-all "ephemera," but the real ephemeral stuff, in my opinion, are digital photographs -- and digital films and digital audio recordings. Digital files are corruptible. Technologies change fast. The minute a big magnetic asteroid passes too close to the planet and all our hard drives are wiped (or whatever -- pick your disaster), 99% of photographs taken in the last ten years are going to be gone -- along with audio and video records. The fact is, photographs, films and audio recordings from the past hundred years are much more archivally stable than what we're producing now. The Daily Record reports:

New digital recordings of events in U.S. history and early radio shows are at risk of being lost much faster than older ones on tape and many are already gone, according to a study on sound released Wednesday. Even recent history — such as recordings from 9/11 or the 2008 election — is at risk because digital sound files can be corrupted and widely used CD-R discs last only last three to five years before files start to fade, said study co-author Sam Brylawski. Digital files are a blessing and a curse. Sounds can be easily recorded and transferred and the files require less and less space. But the problem is they must be constantly maintained and backed up by audio experts as technology changes. That requires active preservation, rather than simply placing files on a shelf.

Another thing that's endangering the preservation of our past? Copyright law.

A hodgepodge of 20th century state anti-piracy laws also has kept most sound files out of the public domain before U.S. copyright law was extended to sound recordings in 1972. The study found only 14 percent of commercially released recordings are available from rights holders. That limits how much preservation can be accomplished, Brylawski said. The study calls for changes in the law to help preservation. As it stands now, Brylawski said, copyright restrictions would make most audio preservation initiatives illegal, the authors wrote.

Let's hope they figure it out, or the great irony of our media-saturated era will be that so much content was created, and none of it preserved!