Using Digital Technology to Preserve the Rarest Documents
As I as discussed in the introduction to my 2005 book, From Gutenberg to the Internet, one of the consequences of the Internet is the paradox that while vastly more information is now accessible to us by the click of a mouse, there is the question of how much digital information will survive over time. There is also the question of much of the information being generated on the Internet deserves to survive, and who might be qualified to make judgments about preservation issues. Since all bloggers like myself are now essentially electronic publishers, and technology has made it so easy and so inexpensive to publish on the web, the amount of information being published electronically is exponentially greater than what was produced in the world of physical or printed information before the Internet. Not that the old world of print produced such a limited amount of information. Somewhere in the From Gutenberg to the Internet Timeline, available in the Traditions section of my website, you will find statistics indicating that the national archives of some countries were shelving miles of new physical documents each year in the years before those governments mandated that new government documents be prepared and stored in electronic form. However, as those governments soon realized, the technology for the long-term storage of digital information over decades or centuries does not yet exist. Currently there are massive research projects in the works in various countries, of which the foundations of some more notable are also specified on my timeline, to develop reliable long-term preservation technologies for digital files. These digital preservation projects are being run by various national libraries, like our Library of Congress.
Another consequence of the exponential growth of digital information on the Internet is that ironically, while the long-term preservation of digital information remains uncertain, websites have become a powerful tool for aiding the preservation and increasing the accessibility of many of the world's most fragile and most valuable original physical documents. Many of the large institutional and national and state libraries that run digital preservation research projects also have major projects either completed or underway for the digitization of physical archives recorded on paper or on vellum. An excellent example of this is the program to make the Dead Sea Scrolls available on the Internet. Using enhanced imaging technologies, all of the Dead Sea Scrolls will eventually be available for viewing by anyone, anywhere, and the digital images will actually show more information than may be visible on the originals since the web will display images taken of some scrolls years ago before exposure to light and pollutants caused fading. By making the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls accessible to all scholars without having to grant scholars permission to examine the physical objects, these priceless treasures, which till now have been accessible only to the few, will be protected from handling while allowing everyone to view them in more detail than is possible in their published form in printed editions. Thus, while the long-term preservation of digital information still remains an unsolved problem, digital technology is the best method ever devised for preserving the most valuable and fragile information recorded in physical form.