Karl-Erik Tallmo,

This text may not be re-published, printed or copied without the author's permission. Copyright © Karl-Erik Tallmo

Excerpt from a speech given at the opening ceremonies of the Gothenburg City Archive's new facilities on April 19, 1994.

Archives and Preservation in the Computer Age


In his day, Galileo supposedly could have read all of the books in the Bolognese university library in five or six years. Should Newton, who lived just a few generations later, have attempted to read all of the books contained in the Cambridge university library, he would not have been able to complete the task in his lifetime. Shifting to the present day, one can safely conclude that a single person would not be able to read, in the course of his entire life, everything that is published in a single day in the world.

”Institutions want to save money by transferring documents to CD-ROM disks. They should probably see to it that the originals are saved as well, even if they are being stored in an underground cave 200 miles away.”

With this flood of information, great demands have been placed not only on us, but also on our archives, libraries and museums, and not just to house all of this material, but to also preserve it.

I shall outline some of the problems that exist.

We can begin by imagining that our grandchildren, sometime in the future, say around the year 2050, run across some old CD-ROM disks or some other sort of computer medium, perhaps small memory chips the size of lumps of sugar, containing whole libraries of information. But fifty years from now, they will more than likely only be able to read the text on the cover of the CD-ROM disks, unless they seek out some historically minded computer club or a technical museum or a library populated by gray haired hackers who consider it a challenge to get into the old electronic books.

Let us say that after a week or two our hacker has managed to ascertain that this disk was a copy of Grolier's multimedia encyclopedia from 1994. And that somehow or another, he has also managed to figure out that what is needed is a Macintosh computer with at least a 68020 processor operating on the Macintosh OS 7.01. Also needed are the QuickTime 1.6 extension, at least 4 MB of internal memory, a monitor with at least 256 colors and, last but not least, one of those old CD-ROM players which reads at a snail's pace of 150 KB/second. A week later, our computer archaeologist has managed to find a few old machines that at least enable him to read the texts, but it is not possible to see the pictures or video clips. As it turns out, it was impossible to find the particular version of QuickTime that was optimal for use with the 7.01 operating system. This loss is significant, comparable to our settling on still images and a written summary of old, classic films since there are no longer any projectors available to play the films on.

So far, there is not an incredible amount of original work existing only in the electronic medium. Most items exist in other formats as well. But the issue of preservation will likely become more important as we aquire more original works. Another problem area is created when companies and institutions want to save money by scanning original documents, transferring them to CD-ROM disks, and then destroying the originals. They should probably see to it that the originals are saved as well, even if they are being stored in an underground cave 200 miles away. This is especially important in those cases where it is not just the actual content that is interesting. Sometimes the individual copy itself also has a story to tell.


Translated from Swedish by Henrik Nordström.

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