The Cloud Will Not Remember Everything Forever: Some Thoughts Prompted by Another Forest History Archival Donation

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First let me say that not everything should be saved.  Further, that so much information is available today to anybody with an internet connection is a good thing.  That it can be accessed at any time of the day or night is certainly convenient.  That digitization can protect unique archival documents from wear and destruction is a wise conservation strategy.  However…

The rush to the cloud has made it difficult to facilitate donations of older secondary sources-particularly those items now also available online.  For example, way back in the spring, Kim Christie-Milley of the City of Edmonton Archives offered a set of serials to the members of the Canadian Archivists list-serve.  Edmonton Archives staff determined that their brief run of American Forestry Magazine did not match their institutional mandate and they wanted to find it a new home.  I subscribe to this list and the Canadian Forest History Preservation Project was happy to intervene, ensuring that the no-longer wanted volumes were not thrown out.

Peter Murphy of The Forest History Association of Alberta picked up the serials and delivered them to the FHAA archive at Hinton.  This is an acceptable medium term solution, but it would be preferable if some other public institution were to express an interest in them.

Peter lets us know that the issues represent “the start of a very formative period of the Dominion Forestry Branch in Alberta, during which it developed a Forest Service that in 1930 was transferred to the province. The articles in these journals provide an interesting context for interests and concerns at the time. Many of them contain a  Canadian Department  in which highlights of Canadian news events are summarized.”

I couldn’t entice the University of Alberta Library to accept the journals, though they were extremely sympathetic.  Apart from my intervention, Kim received a lone response from one other person. Understandably, many repositories are trying to minimize physical space requirements, and the run of the American Forestry Magazine from the late 1910s and early 1920s is available to large institutional subscribers online.  I worry about this.

Research by  my former student Sumeyye Cakal has shown that electronic storage of documents is only environmentally and economically sustainable if they are to be accessed frequently and only in the short term.  Documents rarely accessed, and those stored for a very long time, are much better kept in physical form on paper, than as electronic records.  Small fixed costs accumulate over time rendering the rarely accessed electronic record neither economically nor environmentally sustainable.

Insights by David Rosenthal make this all the more urgent.  I attended his presentation at the 2012 UNESCO  Memory of the World in the Digital Age  conference.  There, he shared the observation that in the future, cloud storage  will be “a lot less free than it used to be.”   The biggest threat to perpetual digital documents is a flagging or unstable budget.  Rosenthal argues that  paper survives benign neglect very well, but bits are very vulnerable to interruptions in the money supply.   An even fleeting drop in budget for electricity to power spinning hard-drives will mean destruction for cloud-based documents.

Layer on problems of  “data rot,” files unable to be read because the original contextual software that created them no longer works or no longer exists, and paper copies that have survived the rush to the cloud thus become all the more valuable. For example, this announcement is the death sentence for one desktop spreadsheet file format.  Note particularly, “Replacement products: there are no replacement programs.”  This might not trouble many now, but imagine some future archival researcher attempting to access information so stored.

Even if it appears infinite to so many contemporary enthusiasts, like so many other realms before,  the cloud  is a finite resource.  Our ability to generate electronic records today, far outstrips our future ability to pay for them.  This is a problem right now because more resources are being made available to digitize existing paper collections, than for describing so called  hidden collections  (material with inadequate meta-data or finding aids, rendering it thus invisible to researchers).  Many paper collections are being jettisoned in favour of newer electronic formats, housed elsewhere.  Sometimes those originals are retained, or as in the case of these American Forestry Magazines they find new homes, but often they are not.

Nude celebrity photos notwithstanding, the cloud will not remember everything forever.  Let’s take action now to ensure that the multiple does not become a scarcity, or cease to exist at all.

The Canadian Forest History Preservation Project is a collaboration of The Canadian Forest Service, NiCHE, and the Forest History Association of BC.

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