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National Archives And Dune's House Records

The National Archives is facing a growing problem: too many new documents in too many formats on too many different technologies. "We don't want to turn into a Cyber-Williamsburg, a place that keeps old technologies alive," says Kenneth Thibodeau, director of the Electronic Records Archives Program, referring to the living museum in Virginia where people and homes look as they did in the 18th century.


(National Archives, Washington D.C.)

The National Archives were created in 1934 by order of President Roosevelt; it became the repository of federal records, with documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. About five billion pages of paper documents are stored in Washinton; this does not count the contents of 13 regional archives and 11 presidential libraries. Now, electronic documents (like emails) number in the hundreds of millions.

Why hasn't anyone thought ahead to when the archives will contain documents spanning millenia? Actually, Dune author Frank Herbert already has.

In his 1984 novel Heretics of Dune, Herbert writes about the Chapter House Records of the Bene Gesserit. These records go back 300 generations:

...Chapter House Records could only be viewed as a jungle of of abbreviations, special notations, coded insertions, and footnotes. Such material often required a Mentat for translation or, what was worse in times of extreme fatigue demanded that she delve into Other Memories. ...You could never consult Archival Records in a straightforward manner. Much of the interpretation that emerged from that source had to be accepted on the word of the ones who brought it or (hateful!) you had to rely on the mechanical search by the holosystem...
(Read more about Frank Herbert's Chapter House Records)

What is the best way we have to save electronic records? Set the Wayback Machine to 1965; for now, the Archives uses electronic storing methods, transferring data onto magnetic tapes because that is the only format the archivists know will work indefinitely.


(IBM 1410 with six tape drives [source])

According to Herbert's novel, our National Archivists haven't really even started working on the real problem; how to find what you want, across document format and technology.

Read more at the WSJ.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 1/1/2006)

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