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Librarians discuss how to store world's data

Mike Keller is at a conference this week in San Francisco on digital archiving.

At a briefing between conference sessions, Stanford University librarian Michael Keller outlined the two-pronged challenge - preserving and digitizing the wisdom of the past, and deciding what to keep of the new facts, photos and videos being created at accelerating rates. Keller said preserving and cataloging the past, though no small feat, is the easier of the two tasks, and conferees in San Francisco heard some of the successes in that category, notably the new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center of the U.S. Library of Congress. The center, which houses more than 5 million recordings, films, videos and entertainment industry records, was donated to the government last year by the Packard Humanities Institute. Gregory Lukow, the library's audiovisual chief, said the foundation spent 10 years and more than $150 million to create a facility that includes dozens of climate-controlled vaults to preserve precious films and equipment to digitize recordings, videos and other cultural artifacts. When foundation officials gave the government the new facility last year, it was the largest private gift ever received by the Library of Congress, which named the new center after Silicon Valley icon David Packard, the primary benefactor.

"A tremendous amount of material is born digitally every year," said Keller, the Stanford librarian, adding that even a big institution like his can only collect 2 or 3 percent of the new knowledge created annually. And while the sheer volume of digital information being produced is daunting, the bigger headache is that e-knowledge keeps changing its wrapper, jumping into new programs, operating systems and hardware that provide new and more engaging ways to communicate.

How will librarians keep pace? Well, that's what the conferees will spend all week discussing. But Keller pointed out some main thrusts. Today, the tried-and-true method is migration - converting old digital data formats into newer ones on a case-by-case basis, which is costly and aggravating, especially given how formats change so frequently, he said. Down the road, technologists might discover how to present older digital creations in emulation - like running Windows software on a Macintosh computer. Alternately, libraries might store both the hardware and software for playback - like an old phonograph that plays wax records - a tactic called encapsulation. Whatever the approach, it should have started yesterday and now must run faster to keep up with tomorrow because, as Keller said, "everybody's a creator, everybody's a publisher."


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