The Digital Dark Age:

What the ...

When’s this ‘digital dark age’ supposed to be?

Right here ... Right now.

The first email ever sent has been lost, forever.

The 1960 US Census data was almost lost and even then was not completely recovered after a three year project to rescue it. The tapes it was supposedly permanently recorded on were in a format that newer tape drives could not read and none of the original machines existed when researcher went looking for the information.

Data recorded by NASA during the 1976 Viking missions had to be rekeyed by hand from faded printouts because no one could read the special data format on the original magnetic tapes.

The original floppy disk was 8 inches in diameter ... Umm, er, a floppy what?

Starting to get the picture.

And the problem isn’t just in the hardware, software obsolescence is just as prevalent, and the situation is aggravated by the use of proprietary data formats, and the mixing of media types. From a purely technical point it is not surprising that the software manufacturers push so strongly to get people to upgrade and remove support for older formats as they do. They have to do this to keep their application code bases at a manageable size.

“Digital information can conceivably last forever, or three product upgrades ... whichever comes first.”

A dire statement, but one which becomes more understandable when one takes into account that the first digital computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), was activated in only 1946. For a field of endeavour so young, and so necessary in our modern world, it is hardly surprising that there are many different and competing technologies and that platforms (both hardware and software) that aren’t successful get left behind and forgotten about.

I want to keep these articles short, so more on this next week. But, for those of you who can’t wait, the references below are quite good. Read them ... while you still can.


For a general view here’s a CBS News story.

For an academic discussion on this topic here’s a paper from a librarian/archivist’s point of view.

  “A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information” by Terry Kuny (

Phill Berrie, July, 2008.