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You are hereLOCKSS, Thomas Jefferson and digital records

LOCKSS, Thomas Jefferson and digital records


This week I've been thinking about strategies for preservation for the Library and Archives of Canada, and particularly about the "Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe" strategies that many of us have advocated for years as an alternative to expensive preservation and protection mechanisms.

I was amused, therefore, to find in correspondence at the Library of Congress that Thomas Jefferson wrote about this in 1791 proving both that he was an astonishing thinker and that there is nothing new under the sun. Speaking of the records of the American revolution, he said:“Let us save what remains not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident."

If only Jefferson was here now to help us think through the challenges of digital preservation! While the LOCKKS strategy definitely addresses the major threats to analogue records that arise from the potential of local catastrophes, it doesn't solve the special problem presented by preservation of any machine readable record: what if the machines required to read it (software as well as hardware) are not available? Unlike local catastophes, which destroy a single copy somewhere but leave others elsewhere uneffected, the obsolescence problem is likely to effect all copies of digital records, essentially at once.

This is, of course, why digital preservation is not a one time intervention but involves constant vigilance and format migration. Alas, just distributing copies doesn't ensure their preservation any more than it serves Jefferson's second goal of allowing public access. We'll just have to keep working on it. But its amazing still to realize that Jefferson was there to propose in 1791 something that wasn't widely understood again for 200 years.

I wonder what he said about open linked metadata?