Lossless… Maybe

For some reason the vulnerability of today’s documents came to mind repeatedly this week. It’s a serious and continuing problem for everyone — archivists, librarians, private citizens… and law firms. The email files, the CD-ROM’s (remember them?), WordPerfect files, PDF files, Polaroid photos, all have an uncertain life span, and all are produced with a proprietary technology that will almost certainly have an even shorter life span than the fruit it bears. The anxiety is that in some future we (or our children) will be looking at flaking, curling, crumbling, or unresponsive and cryptic physical objects, and at character strings on a screen that are as opaque to understanding as Etruscan still is to archeologists. I have a collection of ancient, by modern standards, computers in the basement that almost certainly hold stuff that would be both fascinating to me and unretrievable were I to bother to haul them into the light to play with them.

Readers of Slaw know all this, I’m sure. So I’m curious about the solutions that have been adopted at various institutions and firms for the preservation of data, to use the most abstract term.

I know that at Osgoode Hall Law School there’s no program in place for the systematic preservation of electronic records produced by the faculty and staff in the ordinary course of their work. Crucial records are kept, certainly, of data pertaining to students — their names, years of attendance, grades, etc. — both by the law school and by York University, most of which will be in the form of paper and electronic files. But that means that vast amounts of institutional information will evanesce as hard drives fail and as backup systems become overloaded with disorganized information and push the old material off one end to make room for new.

Law firms, however, cannot enjoy the luxury of scholastic disorganization. My guess is that paper is still king when it comes to archiving records. Am I right? Are firms routinely scanning paper documents into digital files? As backup? And if so, what format is the finished product in?

This most recent burst of concern was prompted by an argument online that the JPEG2000 format is superior to TIFF for creating archival records because it offers true lossless compression. All of which may be true, is over my head, illustrates the arcane nature of the very mundane problem of preservation, and branches out into a hydra-headed set of issues.

It’s the eleventh hour. Do you know where your documents are?

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