Concept

Digital obsolescence

Summary
Digital obsolescence is the risk of data loss because of inabilities to access digital assets, due to the hardware or software required for information retrieval being repeatedly replaced by newer devices and systems, resulting in increasingly incompatible formats. While the threat of an eventual "digital dark age" (where large swaths of important cultural and intellectual information stored on archaic formats becomes irretrievably lost) was initially met with little concern until the 1990s, modern digital preservation efforts in the information and archival fields have implemented protocols and strategies such as data migration and technical audits, while the salvage and emulation of antiquated hardware and software address digital obsolescence to limit the potential damage to long-term information access. A false sense of security persists regarding digital documents: because an infinite number of identical copies can be created from original files, many users assume that their documents have a virtually indefinite shelf life. In reality, the mediums utilized for digital information storage and access present unique preservation challenges compared to many of the physical formats traditionally handled by archives and libraries. Paper materials and printed media migrated to film-based microform, for example, can be accessible for centuries if created and maintained under ideal conditions, compared to mere decades of physical stability offered by magnetic tape and disk or optical formats. Therefore, digital media have more urgent preservation concerns than the gradual change in written or spoken language experienced with the printed word. Little professional thought in the fields of library and archival science was directed toward the topic of digital obsolescence as the use of computerized systems grew more widespread and commonplace, but much discussion began to emerge in the 1990s.
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