For years, our most important records have been committed to specialized materials and technologies. For archivists, 1870 is the year everything begins to turn to dust. That was the year American newspaper mills began phasing out rag-based paper with wood pulp, ensuring that newspapers printed after would be known to future generations as delicate things, brittle at the edges, yellowing with the slightest exposure to air. In the late 1920s, the Kodak company suggested microfilm was the solution, neatly compacting an entire newspaper onto a few inches of thin, flexible film. In the second half of the century, entire libraries were transferred to microform, spun on microfilm reels, or served on tiny microfiche platters, while the crumbling originals were thrown away or pulped. To save newspapers, we first had to destroy them.
Then came digital media, which is even more compact than microfilm, giving way, initially at least, to fantasies of whole libraries preserved on the head of a pin. In the event, the new digital records degraded even more quickly than did newsprint. Information’s most consistent quality is its evanescence. Information is fugitive in its very nature.
“People are good at guessing what will be important in the future, but we are terrible at guessing what won’t be,” says Clay Shirky, media scholar and author, who in the early 2000s worked at the Library of Congress on the National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Project. After the obvious — presidential inaugurations or live footage of world historical events, say — we have to choose what to save. But we can’t save everything, and we can’t know that what we’re saving will last long. “Much of the modern dance of the 1970s and 1980s is lost precisely because choreographers assumed the VHS tapes they made would preserve it,” he says. He points to Rothenberg’s Law: “Digital data lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first,” which was coined by the RAND Corporation computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg in a 1995 Scientific American article. “Our digital documents are far more fragile than paper,” he argued. “In fact, the record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy.”