Library collections going digital

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Hold on to your seats—apparently, America is in a library-related crisis. “File Not Found,” a September 2006 Atlantic Monthly article, elaborates on the “digital preservation problem,” an issue that spans from the Library of Congress all the way to the UVA Library System. Basically, since we stopped storing information on stone tablets and papyrus scrolls, changing technology has made it pretty darn hard to keep from losing data.
“The most stable format is paper,” says Bradley Daigle, head of rare materials digital services for UVA Library System. “We have examples of paper that go back a thousand years, or at least pretty close.”
Libraries are nonetheless moving toward digital preservation. Though it may seem easy (and wise) to keep a digital backup of everything, Daigle says it’s much more complicated: “We have image files that are a gigabyte in size,” too large to simply put copies of every book on CD-ROM.
So, UVA is currently focusing just on its “special” collections—things like rare books or Jefferson’s letters. “We’re trying to take the long view for managing and being good stewards of these materials. It’s fabulously expensive to do digital preservation.” Daigle adds, “It doesn’t make sense to digitize our collections for the sake of digitizing.” UVA has spent $2 million in the past two years on digitizing rare collections, says Charlotte Morford, library spokesperson.
Besides costs and file size, part of the “digital preservation problem” is that changing technology is constantly challenging the formats of stored data. If you don’t believe it, just try sticking a floppy disc in a brand new laptop.
To combat this, Daigle says, UVA is diligent about managing its formats. “Each form of media has a certain refresh rate, so for DVDs, if they say it’s good for five years, we would generally try to refresh around three years. The main strategy we have is to control the different types of digital formats that come in.” All of UVA library’s digital files are currently stored in TIFF format, the image medium that packs the most information for its file size, Daigle says.
Safeguarding the images once they’re created and stored is also fairly elaborate. One UVA server is divided among three locations that are “not even remotely near each other,” Daigle says. “Something pretty dramatic would have to happen to Charlottesville for that to be a problem.”

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