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Historians Exploring the Tech Graveyard

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Tech Graveyard
Tech Graveyard

As someone who has studied history, I’ve long been interested in how future historians will handle our recent, tech-based civilization. Cords, cables, incompatible software, proprietary systems, historians will have a tangled mess to sort out.

When archivists at Northwestern University Library received boxes of personal items from the late actress Karen Black, they expected the usual: correspondence, scripts and fan mail. So when they found a silver Sprint flip phone, they were surprised and excited.

But there was one problem: It didn’t come with the cables.

Without the charger and data cables, the former Northwestern student’s phone went from being a potential treasure trove documenting her life to just a piece of plastic and metal.

For years, archivists have combed through papers and books to capture life at a specific point in time or a famous person’s work. With digital technology advancing rapidly and devices becoming outdated even quicker, the need to come up with strategies on preserving the nonphysical becomes urgent.

After exhausting other options, library archivists are encouraging the public to empty junk drawers and send in outdated cords through their zombie-themed #UndeadTech campaign. Their hope is to raise awareness about the challenges they face in preserving history and reach out to the public to help them resurrect devices such as Black’s.

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But once a device is turned on, then archivists have to figure out how to access the information and then how to transfer it to a format where it can be read in the future.

Chris Prom, assistant archivist for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, said he has been given computers without power cords as well. But after finding the right cords for the device, he was faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to process the data and then convert it into a form that is accessible later. Oftentimes, the systems that are needed to read the information on the device no longer exist.

“It’s like a big detective project to untangle it all and find out exactly what software you need to read it,” Prom said.

(click here to continue reading Northwestern University archivists aim to resurrect outdated technology – Chicago Tribune.)

Cell Phone Evolution
Cell Phone Evolution

When I was a student at UT, my senior history thesis was written after spending many an afternoon flipping through the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum’s archives, handling memos and various scraps of paper. Fast forward a few decades, will there be anything to flip through? And not just governments, but people too: will those emails you sent last month survive your death? Your Instagram photos? When is the last time you booted up that old laptop?

 Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph

Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph

While Northwestern archivists said their program could be the first in the nation to tap into the junk drawers of the public for mobile devices, Dennis Meissner, president of the Society of American Archivists, said that the problem of turning on and deciphering outdated technology is not a new one. Technologies such as microfilm, magnetic media and wax media are just some of the devices that archivists have had to tackle.

“The first part is getting the hardware that can help you read items, and the second problem is pulling together software to help you make sense of it,” Meissner said. “It’s just a new instance of an age-old problem that archivists face.”

Written by Seth Anderson

October 27th, 2015 at 9:06 am

Posted in government,News-esque

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