analog data: the longevity thereof.

One of my regular reads from the old Fatherland has an interesting article today about a letter that took 71 years to deliver. (link is in German)

In WWII, German troops occupied the Channel island of Jersey for five years. Some of the local yoots decided to steal a bag of German military mail as an act of defiance. They didn’t destroy the letters, but kept them safely stashed away. One of the former defiant yoots turned a bunch of them in to the Jersey archives 70 years later. They made copies, translated what they could, and then contacted the post office. The Jersey post office got in touch with the German Mail, and together they came up with the idea to deliver whatever letters they still could. Some of the recipients couldn’t be located, some letters went to (now luckily defunct) National Socialist organizations and offices and definitely couldn’t be delivered anymore, but ten of the letters found their way to the addressees or their descendants.

I’ve mentioned the hand-written recipe books my wife owns—they were written by her maternal grandmother before she emigrated to the United States in the early 1920s. Not only can I still read them (with a little difficulty—the Sütterlin script taught in schools back then can be a bit hard to decipher even for a German speaker), but it’s really neat to be able to hold and own an object that she owned and filled with her own handwriting. The postcard story above reinforces to me that the analog ways of data recording and transmission not only still have value, but also advantages that digital data lacks. Imagine if your descendants go through some old stuff in the attic in seventy years and find a USB stick with your writings or drawings on it. Will they be able to extract the data on whatever computers they use in 2082?

(I have a set of Jaz disks in a box in the attic that have some of Robin’s college and grad school stuff on them. I’m quite handy with a computer, but even I don’t have the necessary hardware and drivers to extract that data. How about a bunch of 5.25” floppies with WordStar documents on them? Or maybe a 3.5” disk formatted for AmigaOS?)

Handwritten notes, however, will still be perfectly legible and accessible, providing they’re stored in a dry spot.

That assumes, of course, that our descendants in 2082 can still read.

14 responses

  1. As it turns out, barring fire, archrival-quality paper is a pretty long-lived storage medium. It’d suck for backing up your copy of Windows 8, though. :p

  2. Most of the digital archival arguments cite only the media, while a few cite the data formats. If you ‘maintain’ your archival data by simply moving it to new systems on occasion (jazz disks to dvd-r about 5-8 years ago, dvd-r to an average sized hard drive today) it will remain as accessible and readable as your other stuff. Really, its just a matter of taking your ‘old-$#!t’ and copying it onto whatever your current system is rather than burying it in the storage locker for two decades, where it will rot as certain as cheese. Data formats have more potential to be tricky, but as long as you keep at least copies in common open standard formats there isn’t any real worry (doc, rtf, txt, html – not ods, or jpg tif etc not gimp native or camera raw).

      • .pdf has been around for not quite twenty years.

        While I understand that this is considered a Very Long Time in computer circles, it’s barely older than the owner’s manual for my car, which hasn’t required backing up or rebooting even once.

  3. I’ve been using FOSS to create documents for over a decade and find that if I save it as a “Microsoft Word 95″ .doc file, then everyone pretty much under the sun can open, read, and print the stuff inside without any glaring display errors.

    It may not be an open standard, but it’s thoroughly understood and reverse engineered. Recommended for resumes even when your applying for something that requires linux.

  4. It would seem that the software industry isn’t orphaning file formats so often as it used to. While Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3 might be lost to the mists of time, variations on the likes of RTF and XLS are relatively safe.

    Storage media is also fairly capacious and cheap enough that migrating your old data with you isn’t difficult.

    Agree for the the extremely personal stuff a tangible thing whose purpose was to bear that message in a way that does not require a device to read/see/etc will always have a certain power and durability.

  5. “That assumes, of course, that our descendants in 2082 can still read. ”


    (that’s a dark bitter laugh)

    I don’t like the idea of having to chase new media every few years.
    These days it’s nearly impossible to find offline storage that can match a hard drive, but much of what’s on our computers is crap not worth saving indefinitely. If you can identify (and keep segregated!) the important stuff, it can just be backed up to the time-local media, but still the question remains: what happens when you stop. Then everything ages… I think our ability to create information has well-surpassed the point where we can retain it outside of our nice little technological bubble. If there were a horrible collapse, a lot would be lost. Maybe we can create a moon archive that’s wifi accessible and broadcasts engineering information in morse code with instructions on how to rebuild a client from sticks and mud…

  6. For those who think that disabling changes in format are less frequent/more forgiving and for those who advocate constant backing up: why do you want material to be preserved at the mercy of an unending series of change and “upgrades”? Or to be dependent on someone keeping up with back ups that are needed every three and half minutes (to little benefit)?

    Marko’s recipes are one example, along with letters from distant ancestors and genealogical data. Charles Dickens annotated a copy of A Christmas Carol that he used on reading tours and his notes are still revealing and legible over a century and a half later. (The pencilled remarks are more legible than the ones in ink.) If it is worth preserving, I’ve learned to avoid ephemeral technologies.

  7. Your parting comment reminds me of an argument I’ve had recently about the importance of continuing to teach kids cursive in school. Unless you learn how to write it, it is very difficult to learn how to read it. My chief argument for continuing to teach it is the importance of being able to read handwritten historical documents.

  8. At Christmas my mom showed my brother and me letters from our Grandma. It was a strange feeling to read a document that was written in ink on paper 25 years before I was born. And yes, those letters are still around and provided that you can read the old handwriting, they are still readable. But most of my email is stored on one or the other computer that refuses to restart.

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