The dangers to information in today’s age

Modern technologies are being used to ‘preserve’ information only to result in the disappearance of the resources themselves.

By
May 11, 2010 21:24
4 minute read.
The dangers to information in today’s age

seth frantzman 88. (photo credit: )

In the early 1980s, Peter Armstrong, a BBC television producer, had a brilliant idea; he would produce a modern Domesday book fit for the information age. The original Domesday book had been compiled between 1085 and 1086, following William the Conqueror’s conquest of England. It was intended as a survey of all the land holdings and places in England, with the very typical government interest in finding out who could be taxed and for how much. Armstrong hoped to harness new computing technology to create a massive database, complete with pictures, maps and interactive video. He hoped to have the project completed by 1986 for the 900th anniversary of the original.

The project, with funding from the BBC and the European Commission, was completed on time and included a wealth of information and data. The public, it seems, lost interest and while the original intention was to have the information available in libraries and educational facilities, the exorbitant cost of the disks  produced ($7,000) and ignorance of their existence meant they passed into irrelevance.

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In 2002, Lloyd Grossman, a UK broadcaster, noted that as technology outpaced itself, it was endangering older formats that were becoming not only obsolete but would lead to irretrievable losses in data. Grossman was right. It turned out that in 2002 the number of computers that could access the 1986 Domesday data was dwindling. Emergency meetings and a campaign by the BBC resulted in a team from the University of Leeds and University of Michigan developing a way to “migrate” the old data to new formats that could be read by computers of 2010.

The story of the new Domesday book is but one example of the way new technologies may ultimately frustrate researchers and archivists who believe they are preserving data. The irony will be that in 100 years it may be hard to access information about the 1990s, while information from the 1890s remains. But there are other problems with the way information is being a protected: Modern technologies are being used by archives to “preserve” information only to result in the disappearance of the resources themselves.

CONSIDER A few examples from Israel. There was once an aerial photo archive at the Hebrew University’s Geography Department. The archive contained images from the British 1944-1945 aerial survey of Mandatory Palestine. The British had embarked on something unique at the time – an aerial survey of every meter of the country using low-flying planes with cameras. Copies of the images ended up in a few places in Israel: the Survey of Israel offices in Tel Aviv, Hebrew University, and some found their way to Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi (a Jerusalem archive established in memory of the country’s second president).

At one point someone decided to scan the aerial photos that the university had at its Mount Scopus campus. The idea was simple: Scanning the images would allow everyone in the world to see them. They were briefly put on-line and then vanished. Two years ago, it was still possible to get access to the archive by special appointment. But by then the scanned images cost around $20 each, supposedly offsetting an archive that was barely open. Eventually the last archivist at the “archive” was let go and the doors closed for good.

The Central Zionist Archives committed a similar act, although with different results. It has an indescribably extraordinary collection of maps from the pre-state period. These are both British survey maps and maps prepared by various Zionist organizations then purchasing and developing the land. The archive decided to scan the maps with the intention of preserving them and making them more accessible to the public. The result was that the public, or even researchers, may no longer access the original maps but must make do with a zoomable image on a computer that can be downloaded by the archive for a fee of $15 for the first map and $9 for each additional one.

As anyone who has read a book on a computer or Amazon’s Kindle will reveal, the experience of seeing a scanned image on a computer is not the same as holding it in one’s hand.

Compare this to the Israel State Archives, which continues to have an “archaic” policy of allowing people to view the actual files and photograph them free of charge. Compare it to the map libraries at Hebrew University, both of which contain invaluable maps, that also allow researchers to photograph them for free. In the interest of making the maps available to all, the Central Zionist Archives actually made the originals inaccessible and made it cost-prohibitive to work with them.

ARCHIVES ARE undergoing a slow but apparently inevitable process of digitalization. One by one, collections are scanned and then hidden in vaults. The scanned images sometimes are then made available for a fee. For the archive, this saves personnel hours of schlepping files back and forth. It also apparently preserves the files for eternity. Or does it? The Domesday scandal reveals that the appearance of the miracle of modern methods of preservation can also be like the Sirens were to Ulysses – a dangerous temptation that may destroy the entire edifice.

The writer is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.


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