Re: Unstable foundations and wavering faith

From: John Fieber (
Date: Tue May 27 1997 - 22:21:37 EDT

On Tue, 27 May 1997, Unicode Discussion wrote:

> --Ken (Color me rosy) Whistler
> P.S. For those who, like me, worry that all electronic data
> not in plain text (and ASCII plain text at that) is in constant
> danger of disappearing into the enormous historical bit bucket
> of undecipherable formats using undecipherable encodings on
> obsolete media, consider the following: Perhaps the greatest source
> of information loss in the longrun was the shift by the publishing
> industry to use of cheap high-acid papers early in this century.
> Ask librarians about the conditions of their pre-War collections

No need to worry about electronic data disappearing in the
future, it has been disappearing for quite some time now thanks
to being stored on flakey or obsolete media, or in undocumented
data formats of long extinct software. In a former life as a
librarian, I spent quite a bit of time dealing with electronic
data sneaking into the library inside the back covers of books
and in other ways.

Librarians have been fretting over digital data for some time
now. Unlike computer scientists, we have been through the
preservation thing many times. It is true, a book published in
the 1700 is as good as new (okay, I exagerate a bit...) while
relatively recent publications turn to dust thanks to cheap
paper. Most of the computer science literature has been
published after the "acid incident" so as a discipline, they tend
to be are blissfully ignorant of the event.

The problem is not really that data isn't in plain text format,
although that is sometimes helpful, but that the formats are (a)
not documented and (b) there are way too many of them. Even if
they were documented, condition (b) makes it too expensive to
deal with unless it is *really* important data. SGML makes a
serious attack on both problems. I just hope the marriage of
SGML and Unicode in the form of XML is successful in bringing
portable, durable documents to the masses. Then continue ironing
out the storage media qirks and librarians will be happy. :)


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.2 : Tue Jul 10 2001 - 17:20:34 EDT