The ABC have a piece from Nation­al Library of Aus­tralia web archiv­ing man­ag­er Paul Koerbin, about the impor­tance of dig­i­tal records preser­va­tion.

Of equal impor­tance, how can we be sure that we can actu­al­ly read those archives in the future? Lit­er­a­cy of Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs was long-gone by the 18th cen­tu­ry, and it took the dis­cov­ery of the Roset­ta Stone for them to start mak­ing sense again.

It’s dif­fi­cult enough deci­pher­ing human lan­guage. Under­stand­ing machine lan­guage is anoth­er thing entire­ly.

I’ve writ­ten about this in the past, con­trast­ing the thou­sand-year-old Domes­day Book (which is still leg­i­ble) with the BBC Domes­day Project (which was ren­dered vir­tu­al­ly unread­able a mere six­teen years after pro­duc­tion).

The means of pre­serv­ing our cul­ture for dig­i­tal preser­va­tion is to use open stan­dards. If the means for ‘read­ing’ the infor­ma­tion is wide­ly doc­u­ment­ed and under­stood, with­out any encum­brances, we stand a much greater chance of being able to inter­pret it in a cou­ple of hun­dred years.

I’ve got essays from school writ­ten only ten years ago, and I can’t read them any more as they’re stored in a pro­pri­etary file for­mat that is no longer sup­port­ed.

Imag­ine you ran a com­pa­ny that had impor­tant and valu­able writ­ten records stretch­ing back for decades. Stor­ing vast libraries of paper is expen­sive and inef­fi­cient, so you decide to digi­tise them all. That’s great — you now have a sys­tem that is easy to man­age and search. Ten years lat­er, you want to migrate your now-age­ing data man­age­ment sys­tem to some­thing more mod­ern. Only, you can’t — it’s all stored in a pro­pri­etary for­mat that can­not be accessed by any­thing else.

If you had kept those paper records, you would have still had access to that infor­ma­tion. Your choic­es now are to con­tin­ue with your old, obso­lete sys­tem for all eter­ni­ty, or hire some clever hack­er to deci­pher the file for­mat. With no equiv­a­lent of a Roset­ta Stone, that’s no mean task. After spend­ing buck­ets of mon­ey on this avoid­able prob­lem, and los­ing even more due to inef­fi­cien­cies and com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage from the old sys­tem, you’d be wise to make sure it can­not hap­pen again.

This is a very com­mon kind of sce­nario. If our infor­ma­tion can’t even last ten years, how can it last a thou­sand?

From a busi­ness per­spec­tive, open stan­dards pro­tect the inde­pen­dence of a com­pa­ny. It means no ven­dor lock-in, so you are not stuck pay­ing monop­oly prices. Through the cre­ation of a free mar­ket sur­round­ing a method/technology, open stan­dards give you the free­dom to select the ven­dors, prod­ucts, meth­ods and tech­nolo­gies that suit your require­ments best, or you can even cre­ate your own. They are the ulti­mate in risk mit­i­ga­tion, and through their flex­i­bil­i­ty can also open avenues for com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. They just make good busi­ness sense.

LotD: Vioxx mak­er Mer­ck and Co drew up doc­tor hit list and Mer­ck Makes Pho­ny Peer-Review Jour­nal

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