The Digital Dark Age - Preservation

In this article I am going to suggest some practices which you can adopt that will help future proof your texts.

Clearly, the best way to protect your work is to have it printed and published world wide. This puts them into a stable, easy-to-maintain form and into the hands of book lovers and librarians who have an interest in keeping them safe and in a usable condition. This is a tried and true system that has been in operation since the development of the printing press, but clearly it is one that is only available to those of us that have been published. So what can the rest of us do to preserve our work?

First and foremost, realise that unless you are published in some form (more on this next week), the onus is on YOU to preserve your work long term, just as it is your responsibility to do regular back ups. You do regular backups, don’t you?

At the moment, the best and easiest way to preserve your documents long term is to archive them to the printed page. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a technologist through and through, but as I hope you now appreciate, there is a good chance that hardware and software obsolescence will make all your digital backups useless well before the text on a printed page will start to degrade.

Duh! I hear you all say.

Still, the fact that it might be obvious, doesn’t make it incorrect. It also doesn’t mean people don’t need reminding to do it. However, let’s talk about digital preservation at home and what can be done to preserve the usability of our digital documents?

Beware of proprietary file formats and binary encodings.

Take a text editor, not a word processor, (see below) and open your file. If you can’t see the words of your text embedded in the file somewhere then this is a file format you should avoid for long term preservation, in my opinion. Basically, you want a file format that you can use to resurrect a file by hand should the original application it was created with no longer be available.

Worryingly, it appears that the latest version of Microsoft Word and some PDF file formats don’t pass this test. File formats that do pass this test are RTF (though at first glance it may not look like it) and HTML. These are the file formats that I would recommend for long term preservation of digital files.

The mention of the HTML file format leads us naturally on to the subject of next week’s (and the final) article on this topic. So unless civilisation as we know it ends ...

Text editors:

Notepad for Windows users, Text Wrangler from Bare Bones Software for Mac users or any application suitable for programming code that does not automatically detect and decode file formats.

Note: if it shows formatted text or character styles then it is not what you want.

N.B. Please note that I although I use the Wikipedia (and WikiMedia Commons) a lot for references, this is for expediency and the familiarity of my readers. Anyone interested in further studies should make use of the references where available and understand the Wikipedia is a co-operative project contributable to by anyone and must always be looked at in that light.

Phill Berrie, August, 2008.