July 30, 2010
Of Preserving Content
Rock Art of Alta is a UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Norway. The carvings date back about 6000-1800 years and they create an impressive collection of pre-historic images. The idea how these images allow us to peek back in time is highly inspirational but also a little frightening thought. How much of our contemporary digital content will be available after two thousand years or even two decades as the current storage devices will get older?
The rock art is vulnerable and requires careful preservation like any pre-historic content does. Part of the Alta site in Kåfjord is permanently covered as the rock material is very cracked in the area. Some of the carvings are almost gone due erosion. Also the pictures in the main site in Hjemmeluft are constantly treated for better visibility. Especially the growth of rock lichen covers the images and hinders visibility. The museum has adapted a gentle alcohol treatment which kills the lichen in long run and allows the art to be seen now as it probably was seen visible millennia ago.
The various external elements are always creating danger for any content preservation. In case of Alta rock art, there are few man made dangers. In one place there is a metal bolt that was planted to support electric line pole, but actually led to discovery of the images. The work was obviously stopped to prevent further damages. Another example is the text “kilroy was here” visible across one image panel. It is clearly planned and laborious piece of work which cannot be justified by any explanation. It plainly shows that any content must be protected against irrational and even malicious acts.
The preservation of digital content is a similar issue. There are number technological issues affecting the long term storage. First thing is obvious device malfunction. Another thing is the deterioration of magnetic storage which may happen unnoticed for period of time and surface only after parts of media is irreversibly lost. Same way optical storage will deteriorate due heat, humidity, light, etc environmental factors. However, the digital obsolescence might be the biggest issue in long run. The pace of technical development is very fast and lot of file formats and storage media technologies have already gone obsolete. People usually don’t actively think about preservation when writing emails or taking digital photos, but these will be part of the future cultural heritage to define how we lived our lives in the beginning of third millennium. Digital preservation is not an immediate danger or something we should be actively worried, but it is still an issue everyone should give a thought.