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Jeff Rothenberg: Digital Preservation in Perspective

How far have we come, and what’s next?

After a brief review of the history of digital preservation, this talk presents Jeff Rothenberg’s perspective on where the field stands now and what remains to be done. It will conclude by posing some challenges and questions intended to stimulate further thinking.

Rothenberg, who retired in 2010 from The RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, is a computer scientist who has written and spoken extensively on the subject of digital preservation for the past 20 years, while consulting with archives, libraries, and museums in the U.S. and Europe. His 1995 Scientific American article, “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents“, helped bring the problems of digital longevity to the attention of researchers and practitioners in many fields.

What is digital longevity? (From Jeff’s personal web site.)
Every digital document is encoded in a binary format of some kind. The resulting bitstream must be interpreted by some process–typically a computer program–that understands the document’s format in order to “render” it into a form that humans can perceive (read, view, hear, etc.). But digital formats and the programs that render them become obsolete very quickly, as do the computers on which they run, making it unlikely that our grandchildren will be able to use the digital documents, records and art-works we are currently creating, unless we take appropriate action. The papers and reports referenced on this page discuss the dimensions of this problem and analyze a number of potential solutions, including migration into successive new formats, the re-encoding of documents into some universal formalism, and the future emulation of obsolete computers to allow a document’s original rendering software to be run indefinitely.

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