One of the ongoing debates in the archival world is how to preserve digital information — those old Word documents saved on 3.5" floppy disks, audio and video recordings in soon-to-be-obsolete file formats, and sometimes even the software needed to access those files. At the archives on the Microsoft campus in Washington state and at the Library of Congress Packard campus for audio-visual conservation outside Washington, D.C., industry experts are taking it one step further. They are considering how best to preserve not only the information, but the actual intended experience of using it.
Just as early filmmakers couldn't have predicted the level of ongoing interest in their work more than 100 years later, who can say what future generations will find important to know and preserve about the early history of software? While the notion that someone might go diving into some long outmoded version of Word might seem improbable, knowledge of the human past turns up in all kinds of unexpected places. Historians of the analog world have long known this: Writing, after all, began as a form of accounting — would the Sumerian scribes who incised cuneiform into wet clay have thought their peculiar angular scratchings would have been of interest to a future age?
Luckily, most record keepers don't have to go to such lengths. But it is a good idea to check on your older digital files from time to time and make sure they can still be opened by your current software. If they're not in active use, you can turn text documents into PDF files, which are less likely to become corrupted or inaccessible. And there is always the option to keep printed copies, as well. You don't need a computer to look at a piece of paper.
The archivists here at the Congregational Library occasionally offer workshops on record stewardship for churches, and they are currently revising our printed reference guide on the subject. If that sounds useful to you, keep an eye on this blog and we will let you know when it's available.