Jeff Rothenberg's Digital Longevity Papers

Jeff Rothenberg's Home Page


[Adobe Acrobat Reader logo] Most of my publications are in Adobe PDF format. If you don't already have a copy of Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader, click the Adobe icon to download a free copy of Acrobat Reader from Adobe's website to read and print PDF.

Note: Please contact me if you have trouble accessing any of the URLs on this page

What is digital longevity?

Every digital document is encoded in a binary format of some kind. The resulting bitstream must be interpreted by some process--typically a computer program--that understands the document's format in order to "render" it into a form that humans can perceive (read, view, hear, etc.). But digital formats and the programs that render them become obsolete very quickly, as do the computers on which they run, making it unlikely that our grandchildren will be able to use the digital documents, records and art-works we are currently creating, unless we take appropriate action. The papers and reports referenced on this page discuss the dimensions of this problem and analyze a number of potential solutions, including migration into successive new formats, the re-encoding of documents into some universal formalism, and the future emulation of obsolete computers to allow a document's original rendering software to be run indefinitely.

My major publications on this subject are:

"Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents" (pdf) This is an expanded version of my January 1995 Scientific American article. It gives an overview of the problem of digital longevity and discusses a solution based on emulating obsolete computers in the future. This expanded version of the article is also available at the CLIR site. The original version of the article (which was somewhat shorter) was published in Scientific American,Vol. 272, Number 1, pp. 42-7.

Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation (html or pdf) This report, which was produced for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) in January 1998, provides an in-depth discussion of a range of proposed preservation approaches (ISBN 1-887334-63-7). The PDF version of this report is also available here.

"Preserving Authentic Digital Information" (html or pdf) This paper discusses the question of what constitutes an authentically preserved digital document or record. The paper appears on pp. 51-68 of the May 2000 report Authenticity in a Digital Environment, published by CLIR (ISBN 1-887334-77-7). The PDF version of this paper is also available here.

*** May 30, 2015: All links to the Dutch Library (KB) and NEDLIB are currently broken. I am working on restoring them. Sorry for the inconvenience--Jeff

Using emulation to preserve digital documents (pdf) This report, published in 2000, describes work done with the Dutch Royal Library (the Koninklijke Bibliotheek) on the use of emulation to preserve digital documents in the deposit library context (ISBN 906259145-0). The report and the project that produced it are described at the Dutch Library's site.

An Experiment in Using Emulation to Preserve Digital Publications (pdf) This report, published in 2000, describes work with the Dutch Royal Library (the Koninklijke Bibliotheek) on an experimental testbed for using emulation to preserve digital documents (ISBN 9062 59 1442). The report and the project that produced it are described at the Dutch Library's Networked European Deposit Libraries (NEDLIB) site.

Carrying Authentic, Understandable and Usable Digital Records Through Time (pdf) This report, co-authored with Tora Bikson in 1999 for the Dutch National Archives and Ministry of the Interior, investigates issues surrounding the preservation of digital archival records. This report produced the design for a preservation testbed, which was subsequently implemented by the Archives and led to the production of a white paper on emulation of which I was the principal author, among other results.

"Scholarly Communication and Information Technology: Exploring the Impact of Changes in the Research Process on Archives" (pdf) This 80+ page paper, co-authored with Avra Michelson, then at the U.S. National Archives, appeared in The American Archivist in 1992. It is available as a (large) single PDF file or as a set of separate PDF sections. My first published proposal of the emulation approach to digital preservation appeared in the Conclusion and Recommendations section of this paper (Part II: Establishing a Strategy for the Future Usability of Electronic Records, p. 297, ff.), although it may be difficult to recognize. The paper is also available as RAND reprint RP187.

"Preservation of the Times" (pdf) This paper appeared in The Information Management Journal, March/April 2002, Vol 36, No. 2, pp. 38-43. ISSN 1535-2897 (ARMA International) It compares two approaches to using emulation for preservation. (This version can be accessed by ARMA members at the ARMA site or via the ProQuest or InfoTrac OneFile library subscription databases. An alternate version (pdf) can be downloaded by those who do not have access to these services.)

Emulation: Context and Current Status (pdf) This white paper (of which I was the principal author) was prepared for the Dutch Archives Testbed project in June 2003. It discusses the use of emulation for the preservation of digital archival records.

The Erl King gives an overview of the renewal of a 1980s analog/digital interactive video artwork by Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman. This work was undertaken by the Archiving the Avant-Garde project, a consortium effort supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The renewed Erl King was the centerpiece of the Seeing Double exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, March 19 through May 16, 2004. My introduction to the above report discusses the technical options for renewing this piece. Additional information about this effort is given at the Guggenheim's Variable Media Initiative site and at the Daniel Langlois Foundation's site.

Renewing The Erl King (pdf) is my own, in-depth report on the Erl King renewal effort. This was also published in Millennium Film Journal (MJF), Hybrids, Issue Nos. 45/46 (Fall 2006), pp. 20-51.

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) site describes the 1998 PBS film Into the Future in which a number of colleagues and I discuss the problem of preserving digital information.

Additional resources:

Numerous additional references are available at this excellent site, compiled by Howard Besser, as well as at the Cedars Project site, The CAMiLEON project's website, and the Dutch Archives Testbed project site.

Jeff Rothenberg's Home Page