Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 June 2018
In this chapter, the author is drawing on a number of projects at Leeds University which he has participated in over many years. His use of ‘we’ throughout indicates the multi-participant nature of such projects.
Since computers were invented in the 1940s and 1950s, the impact of digital technology has grown to the point where it underpins the everyday lives of most people in the developed world. Increasingly, information stored and processed digitally is involved in preserving our cultural heritage. The technology itself is indeed a part of that cultural heritage. As digital information technology is barely 60 years old, and all the software from the earliest machines is already lost, we IT practitioners need to mend our ways. We should plan that our digital information will still be safe and accessible in 100 years. It is then likely that developments over that time will render the material safe for millennia. This involves a time-span over which all our existing hardware technology is likely to become obsolete, and also much of the software – a time-span often far from the minds of those of us who work in IT.
The purpose of preservation of anything, whether it be a painting by Canaletto or a database of climatic measurements, is to enable access at some unspecified date in the future, for purposes not necessarily anticipated by the creators. Furthermore, that future access has to provide meaningful access to the intellectual content of the original material. In the case of the painting, there is a certain self-evidence in the visual image, but more data about the image add markedly to the meaning of the image. Such data are, of course, metadata.
In the case of our database of climatic information there is a need for metadata about who collected it, and why. In order to make any sense of the data, future users will also need to know in what format the data are held, so that they can use appropriate software to access the information. Such metadata (sometimes called technical metadata) might seem to be a special requirement of digital information but, for the painting, information about the techniques used in its production can help in ensuring its material preservation.