I've been watching Vint Cerf's entry into the debate on digital preservation with interest. He's created a buzz around a subject that is dear to recordkeepers, but that doesn’t ordinarily trouble mainstream media.
Whilst Cerf’s comments are fascinating, I’m not comfortable with the implications of some of the commentary on his remarks. It seems to hint that physical records have an innate superiority over digital information; somehow more manageable and easier to interpret.
We’ve never lived in a world of perfect physical records. Paper (or velum, or parchment) records can be messy and disjointed. They can be put in the wrong places, disregarded, damaged, kept too long or discarded in error.
We’ve never kept everything. There are records, but there’s no all-encompassing meta narrative documenting human history. It’s not sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting patiently for the affections of a passing historian. The archival record is partial, fragmentary, a small subset of the information created by humanity.
And although they may be debated and contested topics, appraisal and selection remain part of the work of archivists and records managers. Equally, serendipity, pure dumb luck, has always played some part in determining what information survives, despite the efforts of recordkeepers to minimise its impact.
The analysis of records relies on interpretation. The fact that a record is paper or parchment doesn't necessarily make interpretation easier. Expertise in areas like language, palaeography, diplomatics and so on are crucial to understanding records. Paper records aren’t reliant on an interaction between data, hardware and software in the same way as their digital counterparts, but their nature and significance is not revealed solely by their physical form.
Cerf’s ideas on cloud-based emulation are interesting and worthwhile. Digital preservation is a significant challenge. But let's discuss and engage with that challenge on its own merits. There’s enough to do (and there’s lots being done) without mourning the passing of a fictional age of paper perfection.