Losing the Thread

An interesting piece in PhysicsWeb about the challenge that our current reliance on email will pose for future historians.

I was struck by three quotes:

E-mail is cheaper and encourages quicker thought, and it introduces a peculiar blend of the personal and professional. Science historians have detected a decline in the use of lab notebooks, finding that data are often stored directly into computer files. Finally, they have noted the influence of PowerPoint, which can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.

Generally, though, these new communications techniques are good for scientists, encouraging rapid communication and stripping out hierarchies. But for historians, they are a mixed blessing. It is not just that searching through a hard disk or database is less romantic than poring over a dusty box of old letters in an archive. Nor is it that the information in e-mails differs in kind from that in letters. Far more worrying is the question of whether e-mail and other electronic data will be preserved at all.

AIP historian Spencer Weart notes:

“We have paper from 2000 BC, but we can’t read the first e-mail ever sent. We have the data, and the magnetic tape – but the format is lost.”

Jeff Rothenberg commented that

“it is only slightly facetious to say that digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first”, meaning that information lasts only if regularly migrated to another formatSee his book and a useful summary article..

There is a very helpful timeline on Digital Preservation and Technology which maps the evolution – and indicates the scope of the challenge.


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  1. Some good questions that I think about quite often, also. By contrast, listserv discussions that have been archived to the web (even those discussions that took place pre-web) just live on and on, whether we want them preserved or not!