The problems of converting storage and/or information systems from one technology to another really go both ways. There’s a certain level of investment – in both time and money – to put agency data online, rip your CDs onto your (insert MP3 player here), or otherwise convert data from one form to another. But it’s at least as difficult for the historian, particularly an archivist, to look backward and access material created and/or stored in a form not currently used. The people trying to handle the challenges of the Open Government Initiative are learning this right now.
Librarians and rare document scholars are familiar with the challenges, but the relatively rapid pace of changing technology makes it more likely that old stuff will be inaccessible from a technological perspective. As this article from The Atlantic demonstrates, this is even an issue for those seeking to preserve video games and other forms of digital culture. (Stifle those snickers, please.) It was an effort to make sure there is a Twitter archive, so I’m not surprised that preserving video games needed the concerted effort of academics around the world.
Let’s extend this just a bit. Besides preserving social network sites (which has an added challenge of preserving user privacy), there’s preserving online video (whether or not there are intellectual privacy violations) and the increasing amount of digital art. Much in the same way much early written work is probably lost to the ages, the transition to digital, and the transitions between forms of digital display and storage ensure that some of what we’d want to keep will be lost. Unless some future preservationists start thinking about floppy disks, tape drives, and hard drives (which will disappear from common use in the next few years) as much or more than parchment and canvas.