• Printing’s Role in Long-Term Archive

    Rock strata, t-rex bones, old pots, mummies and memos. All these things make great items in our archives but when we think about human knowledge we think of books. The terms “before recorded history” or “written history” bring up visions of libraries full of books. I think long term data archiving really began with books and books began with printing in the 15th century.

    When the origin of printing is being discussed, who comes to mind? For me it was Caxton the man who introduced the printing press to the British but really Gutenberg in Germany invented the printing press and preceded Caxton by forty years. He was also responsible for the Gutenberg Bible which rocked the Catholic Church even more than the current child abuse scandals. It undermined their power. But one definition of printing is “to produce by means of a reproduction process” and by this I think that the handprint images on cave walls created by cavemen blowing ochre past their fingers would qualify. So would the early use of wood blocks, Chinese chocks, rubber stamps and stencils.

    Regardless of how it started, the ability to create thousands of copies of information fairly quickly and easily provided what the I.T. industry would refer to as redundancy or backup, and enabled business continuance and even disaster recovery. Archives of books exist all over the world including the example above, the Australian National Library in Canberra which contains every book every published in Australia. It houses 10 million books and recently reached 8 million in the number of newspaper pages digitised. It adds about 80,000 items per year. See http://www.nla.gov.au/

    The U.S. Library of Congress has over 34 million books and is also actively digitising everything. The average 200 page book holds about half a megabyte of data so the books in the National Library could theoretically be digitised in about 5 Terabytes of data. This is about the size of a desktop backup disk that you can get from Dick Smith for a couple of hundred dollars.

    In the 1980s there was a fire in the computer room at the ANL and I was involved in recovering our systems and data which was all business related rather than historical but it highlights the vulnerability of our archives whether paper or magnetic disk.

    The medium of books is paper and as long as we keep the items (books) we will be able to read them. This is not necessarily true of digital technologies and I will address this topic next time.

    Mike Sparkes is author of the blog Obscure Aussie and an IT storage expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

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