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Information boom causes memory overload

The new digital media have too short a lifespan to be used for archiving information

One of the greatest challenges facing delegates attending the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva - which closed on Friday - is how to preserve the immense "digital heritage".

The sheer speed of technological change and the daily flood of data make it virtually impossible to keep track of all this material.

Millions of words and images circle the globe every second, using a web of subterranean cables, optical fibres, antennae and satellites.

It’s not only users who are being put to the test with this mass of information – experts are also beginning to despair.

Archives, libraries, museums and all the other institutions with the task of preserving this heritage complain that they are no longer able to keep pace.

“We’re legally bound to keep a record of everything [relating to Switzerland] that’s printed on paper, every web page, every radio and television broadcast. It is impossible,” says Jean-Frédéric Jauslin, director of the Swiss National Library.

“Not even the world’s major libraries, in France, Britain or the United States, are up to the task.”

Mission impossible

Not only is it no longer possible to safeguard all the information; it is becoming impossible even to quantify the mass of data produced each day on our planet.

“Since 1996, an American company, Internet Archive, has been attempting to store all the pages published on the web,” Jauslin explains.

“In seven years, it has accumulated 300 terabytes of information – a mind-boggling figure, which exceeds all the pages of the books produced in the history of mankind.”

Jauslin adds that, sadly, the vast majority of this information is just “garbage”.

As a result of this information boom, the role of archivists and librarians is changing – increasingly, they are having to select, rather than gather, the information that needs to be conserved.

“But it is not our task to define the selection criteria,” Jauslin laments. “That should be the responsibility of politicians. But they don’t yet seem to have taken stock of the problem.”

To mark the information society summit, library directors from some 70 countries have invited national leaders to define an international strategy to conserve this material.


But there are also technical and commercial obstacles to overcome.

“Since we began work 15 years ago, we have copied roughly 600,000 hours of Swiss musical and spoken documents onto Digital Audio Tapes, or DATs,” explains Ombretta Fontana, head of cataloguing at the Swiss National Audio Archives.

“It seemed the best solution from a technical and financial point of view. However, we’ve recently been told that DATs will be going out of production. We’ll have to begin re-copying the entire archive.”

For commercial reasons, every five or ten years manufacturers begin to market new audio recording media, superseding the older forms of data storage. This means that none of the existing storage media – such as CDs, DVDs, minidisks – can be relied on to have a lifespan of more than 20 years.

Archives and libraries are also wary of relying on computer memory. The risk of data losses due to power-cuts, crashes and viruses is just too high.

Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural and education agency, has recently sounded alarm over the fact that a lot of information is also being lost every instant. It has set the preservation of our digital heritage as one of its priorities.

“People are not very concerned about preserving things,” laments Fontana.

“All they want is rapid access to information that will provide short-term benefits. Knowledge has become part of our throw-away society.”

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli

To date, the Swiss National Library has collected 3.5 million documents of all kinds.
Switzerland’s libraries store some 5.2 million texts published before 1900.
The Swiss National Audio Archives has so far preserved 600 thousand hours of music and recorded speech.
Since 1996, 300 terabytes of information have been published on the web, the equivalent of 300 million books of 200 pages.

New communication technologies have accelerated the production and exchange of information worldwide.

Archives and libraries are no longer able to cope with the vast amount of information transmitted day by day.

Therefore millions of pieces of information and records of our civilisation are in danger of being lost for ever.

Despite their technical quality, the digital media produced in recent years have too short a lifespan to be used for preserving human knowledge for posterity.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR