For years, archivists have combed through papers and books to capture life at a specific point in time or a famous person’s work; regarding the rapid advancement of digital technology, resulting in devices becoming obsolete even more quickly, the need to come up with strategies on preserving the nonphysical becomes urgent. After other options, the archivists are enlisting the public’s help, to raise awareness about the challenges they face in preserving history (outdated cords, chargers and data cables are highly south-after items, for example).
Kathleen Feeney, head of archives processing and digital access at the University of Chicago Library, said: “We’re seeing all these new technologies from scholars later in their careers using older new technologies, if that makes sense. We’re getting things like many, many floppy disks and hard drives and laptops. It’s only a matter of time before we start getting cellphones.”
The difference between paper and digital information is the shelf life before they’re inaccessible. Environmental factors like mold, fire and water can affect paper, but the rapid advancement of technology can make cord-matching extremely difficult to impossible. “I think we have the tendency to be future-looking rather than past-looking,” said Laura Alagna, digital curation assistant at Northwestern Library. “All these things move so fast and the equipment won’t be made anymore when we need it. It will be obsolete and impossible to find. If you wait around rather than trying to build a collection for it now, I think that will be a mistake.”
There’s some apprehension about the ability of archivists to “crack a phone.” But Clare Roccaforte, director of library public relations for Northwestern Library reassures that “We’re not picking up a lost phone off the street and hacking it. This is something that someone has given to us with the purpose of preserving it forever.”
Once an old or discontinued device is turned on, there’s now the extra challenge to archivists of having 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 (often, the systems that are needed to read the information on the device no longer exist).
According to Chris Prom, assistant archivist for the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign Library): “It’s like a big detective project to untangle it all and find out exactly what software you need to read it.”
Did You Know That…..
Old computers, early radios (table, floor models, consoles and transistors), early TV sets, computer games, old typewriters, fans, ticker-tape machines and any vintage products related to technology are one of the hottest in-demand items by collectors.
An antique stock ticker machine designed by Thomas Edison in 1870 was used for about 80 years to get stock and commodities quotes from exchanges. As early as 1846, printed letters could be sent by telegraph, but the machines were very delicate and hard to use.
Over time, these machines were improved; by 1867, a stock price ticker system was operating in New York City. Edison’s next invention also brought a great improvement; it was the first to use letters and numbers (not Morse code; in 2014, a rare Edison model sold for $2,460). By the 1880s, there were thousands of stock tickers throughout New York. These ticker-tape machines recorded stock trade information on long thin paper strips.
When a parade occurred in Manhattan to celebrate a special occasion, the ticker-tape strips were torn and thrown at the parade from open windows. Soon, these occasions became known as ticker-tape parades (the paper strips now come from shredders).
Sources: “Archivists aim to resurrect outdated technology”-Chicago Tribune (TNS)-The (Sunday) Vindicator, Nov. 8, 2015 and “Discontinued technology items in demand”-Antiques & Collecting column by Terry Kovel-The (Sunday) Vindicator, March 29, 2015