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Conserving “the Cloud”: Preserving Cultural Heritage of the Digital Age

March 1st, 2013

Conserving “the Cloud”: Preserving Cultural Heritage of the Digital Age

 Caitlin Zant

             Conservation of historical materials has been in existence in one form or another for centuries. The act of preserving cultural heritage has existed almost as long as humans have had an interest in their own past. The traditional idea of a conservator is someone who is interested in primarily historical objects found in archaeological sites; items that can help uncover lost information about the past. To us, as modern individuals, these objects are usually ancient books, manuscripts, ruins, bones, and other tangible pieces of cultural heritage. But the conservation of cultural heritage no longer is reserved for objects centuries old. As we enter an ever-increasing digital age, we come across the issue of the conservation of digital information. While it is not a major issue for today’s conservators, the conservation of digital media is an area within the field that will soon have to be breached, but the question remains: will conservators be ready to handle digital conservation?

            While it is not a pressing topic in the field of conservation today, a method of preservation for digital media will need to be discussed within the coming century. Though we are surrounded by digital information, there is little to no scholarly work being done in the field of conservation on this topic. Researchers in the field of Software and Information Technology have begun to discuss this potentially problematic issue, but it is a topic that seems so far out of the realm of traditional conservation, that it is something conservators have yet to consider (Schilke and Rauber, 2010). Audio and visual materials have now existed for over one hundred years and many are in need of conservation, and the field must develop new methods of conserving this type of cultural heritage. But as technology moves into an ever digital era, how do future conservators deal with this? As technology develops, old materials are soon obsolete. The 8 tracks of thirty years ago are no longer compatible with today’s iTunes and iPods, just as floppy disks cannot be read in most modern computers. How do conservators approach trying to preserve data stored on these obsolete objects?

            This concern becomes even more pressing as one thinks about the amount of digital data in use today. With more and more data being saved to “the cloud”, saved in pixels or being streamed instantly across the internet, there is less of a paper trail for conservators to physically treat in order to preserve cultural heritage. What happens in one hundred years when a future conservator discovers an old USB drive on an archaeological dig? How are they to handle this? While you can save multiple copies of data to different sources, computer hard drives and the computers themselves will one day become historical objects that serve as a defining piece of today’s cultural heritage. The question boils down to how long can this technology be maintained? Technology changes and advances at a rapid pace. Already cassette tapes, CD’s, floppy disks and VHS tapes are close to obsolete. In fifty to one hundred years, today’s digital technology could go the same way, but with data saved in “the cloud”, there will be no tangible material left to conserve.

            We have information from hundreds of years ago due to the preservation of ancient works, but these are tangible objects. What happens when there is no physical object? How do you conserve something that is not physically there? This is a question conservators must begin to address in the near future in order to begin preserving our future cultural heritage. Perhaps conservation will have to undergo a dramatic change, pairing with computer scientists and information technology specialists instead of archaeologists. Regardless of what the future of digital information brings, conservators must be ready to adapt to new ways of preserving and conserving cultural heritage for future generations.      


 “Saving Our Data from Digital Decay” (2010). ScienceDaily. Nov. 23, 2010. Accessed Feb. 19, 2013. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101116072749.htm>.

Schilke, S.W., and Rauber A., 2010. “Long-term Archiving of Digital Data on Microfilm”. International Journal of Electronic Governance, 3 (3): 237-253.

General Conservation

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