Human knowledge held digitally may be lost, UNESCO warns

11 June 2002 – An enormous trove of digital information covering all areas of human endeavour could be lost if specific techniques and policies are not developed to conserve it, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned today.

An increasingly large share of the information produced today is compiled digitally and is designed to be accessed on computers, according to a discussion paper on digital conservation commissioned by UNESCO, but if such material is to be accessed in its original form, technical equipment - original or compatible hardware and software - must be maintained alongside the digital files that make up the data concerned.

Such losses have already occurred and will get worse unless something is done, the paper adds, citing a media report that a neurobiologist seeking data from the Viking probes sent by the United States to Mars in the mid-1970s was told by the US space agency that software to read the 25-year-old computer tapes no longer existed, and "the programmers who knew it had died," according to the scientist.

The sheer volume of material on the web also poses preservation problems, according to the discussion paper, as does the way sites are constantly changed and updated, with superseded materials vanishing without a trace. When organizations go out of business or lose interest, whole websites disappear from sight.

This does not only happen with personal pages or informal sites, UNESCO's paper notes, but also with official ones like that of the United States' administration. As an example, it cites the White House site, which was wiped clean when the presidency changed. While much of the data from the previous Clinton administration was archived, its many Internet links to material on other sites have been lost, as may be the information they contained.

UNESCO is examining means to preserve valuable scientific information, research data, media output and digital art, and aims to define a standard to guide governments' preservation endeavours in the digital age. In May, its member States agreed on the need for rapid action to safeguard global digital heritage, and consultations on best practices have begun.

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