Memories will be the victims of format wars


NET RESULTS:A FEW OF the British Sunday papers had a story last week about a virulent mould that is destroying VHS tapes - and thus the treasured recorded memories of many individuals and families, writes Karlin Lillington.

The mould thrives in the particularly damp summer weather that the UK and Ireland have experienced in recent years. Thus many people - and museums, libraries and other organisations - are finding their stored tapes have been besieged by the mould, which looks like a white film on the tape.

I googled around a bit and it seems that the mould isn't exactly new - on a discussions list hosted at Stanford University, for example, there's a two-year-old discussion about how to safely remove it (The UK articles say this can't be done but a restoration specialist on the Stanford discussion says that in many cases it can).

Of course, some of us might prefer to allow those jerkily-shot videos of our previous incarnations, with big 1980s hair and garbed in scary New Romantic fashions, mould quietly away anyway.

But for those who want to save their Dallas and Dynasty years, a rush is on to get the footage on to something new.

Says the Telegraph: "Many families, anxious to preserve their memories for themselves and future generations, are attempting to convert the tapes to a more modern digital format."

I am wondering what "more modern format" could possibly be able to promise us that memories would remain accessible not just for one lifetime, but for several?

There is no modern digital format that provides anything more than a short-term answer. Advancing technology and new developments in storage media mean ever shorter periods during which a given format reigns.

Already, many people no longer have a machine on which to play a VHS tape - and the Betamax format died out even earlier. Then we moved to DVDs, but that move took some time and some industry scuffles along the way with each new technological advance, before it was quite clear which formats would win out.

Consider too the changes in storage media on your computer, where many of us store our digital memories now, and where the format shifts are far more dizzying.

If you go back more than a decade, you likely used the old, large and truly floppy disks. Then you probably moved to the smaller rigid floppy disks, then perhaps Iomega disks, then the CD, then the DVD, and now perhaps an external hard drive, or you do your backups to "the cloud" (or the internet, as it is more commonly known).

Accessing that older data grows increasingly difficult. Many of the items on these storage media were created with programmes that have long vanished or are in versions no longer supported.

And on the hardware side, most computers these days do not sport a floppy drive of any sort, and the recent Mac Air doesn't have an inbuilt CD/DVD drive on the assumption that users will be uploading and downloading content on the internet, not storing to or reading from DVDs.

For professional archivists, the alarmingly ephemeral nature of digital storage has led to large international projects to archive material into some sort of technologically neutral format if possible, hence a focus on various open source resources. These are seen as less risky because they are not subject to commercial decisions to stop developing or supporting a program or format.

Trinity, UCD, the University of Limerick and many other national institutes are attacking this problem, too - they are working to preserve existing digital resources and, as part of this process, encourage academics and students alike to submit papers and theses to their open-source library archives, where they can be preserved and managed.

That project brought home to me how serious this problem is. I have a doctoral thesis that Trinity wants to add to its open-source library, but I wrote it on an old Mac with an ancient version of Word, and it sits on a floppy disk.

The librarians will have to go and hunt down an appropriate disk drive and Word 3.1 running on a very old version of the Mac operating system to salvage it.

On the other hand, a printed version of my dissertation resides in the TCD print library, and in that very low-tech format will still be readable for centuries (if anyone really wants to), compatible with eyeballs everywhere.

Sometimes you do wonder what exactly is achieved with certain applications of technology. After all, along with clay tablets and carved stone (not highly portable, however), paper and ink remain a data storage format with incredible longevity. The oldest papyrus with a literary text dates to the fifth century BC. That's 2,500 years or so of readability.