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Hallo again to all.

Imagine that you had some documents, some information, or some pictures that you wanted to preserve for a thousand years or more. What would you do with them? It almost doesn't matter what they are; they could be the text of the Bible, or photographs of a family wedding, or instructions for processing raw wood into something suitable to make a Stradivarius violin. It matters just a little bit more whom you might be preserving it for. Are you trying to preserve this information for all of mankind, are you trying to preserve this information for your descendants a century from now, or are you trying to make sure that the 14th Bishop of Emerald City knows the writings and thoughts of its 1st and 2nd bishops? As 'people of the book', Anglicans have an interest in preserving many writings into the distant future. It has always been a challenge to preserve writings, but in this 21st century it is more difficult than ever before.

The details of things that happened 1500 or 2000 years ago are rarely known with certainty. We would enjoy knowing details of the lives of saints and emperors and governors and ordinary people from the era when the Bible was being written and the creeds were being formed. We know the names of a few people who attended, say, the Council of Nicea, but not much else about them. There is even historical disagreement as to the number of people who were there. We don't need to know the names or life stories of the long-dead bishops who approved and promulgated the Nicene Creed, but it's fun to speculate, and the legends are enjoyable whether or not they have any basis in truth.

The (fragile) inner workings of a DVD drive
One of the legends that we grew up with was the story of how the brave St Columba preserved the full text of the Bible against the destructive onslaughts of barbarian invaders by hiding manuscripts in caves on the remote island of Iona. Both the real St Columba and the romanticized St Columba of legend probably worried about preserving the basis of Christian teachings. It is not entirely clear what actually happened, but that doesn't change the nature of the preservation problem. Every few decades someone unearths a buried scrap of papyrus or parchment from some remote location in the Middle East. Sometimes the preserved scraps correspond to sections of modern documents, and sometimes they don't. The St Columba of romantic legend hid scripture texts in caves and taught his successors to teach their successors the hidden locations. The Bible does seem to have survived to the modern era, though we can only guess at changes that were made to it in the first few centuries. Most other documents from earlier times are completely lost; some of the lost documents might matter only to a few people and some of the lost documents might matter to millions. We will never know.

Almost everyone who creates a document these days does so with an electronic device, and the actual object that is the document is not a physical object but just some stored computer bits somewhere. A careful person can make 'backup' copies of electronic documents and send them to faraway places, but the recovery of those documents still requires knowledge (where is the backup copy?) and skill (what software can I use to read or decode that copy?). Meanwhile, computers come and go, storage devices become obsolete and incompatible, software formats evolve (is this a pre-1998 Word document, a post-1998 Word document, or an Office 365 document?), and people who know the answers to those questions pass on to the next world (in which everything is presumably permanent).

Computer and electronic storage devices are shockingly fragile and ephemeral. Almost everyone we know has had a hard drive crash and lost all of the data on it. DVDs, flash drives, magnetic tape and exotic optical media, even though they are advertised as being 'archival', are just a passing fancy and are in truth very delicate.

Even when digital texts have been preserved, it often seems more difficult to search a collection of computer files than to search shelves full of books. Scanning the spines of a hundred books, looking for a familiar visual pattern of a book whose title you can't quite remember, is faster and probably easier than scanning a hundred preserved computer files looking for the same thing.

The best chance that we know of for preserving information into the distant future is to print it out with high-grade inks on top-quality paper, and to store those printed pages according to the principles that have been developed over the years by museum curators and archivists. It seems to be easier to preserve physical objects than to preserve electronic objects, and a slightly-damaged printed page is vastly more accessible than a slightly-damaged computer file.

See you next week. And hopefully the week after that, and again.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

23 October 2016

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