Digital Curation

Unless you are devoid of any sense of wonder, you should marvel at the news that Voyager 1 has now officially left the solar system and has reached interstellar space. On the off chance that this fragile craft may one day be retrieved intact by intelligent life forms, NASA placed a “golden record” on board. This record includes samples of music, bird song, whale sounds, greetings in many languages, black and white and colour images of human society, our planet and the solar system.

They did not, however, include a record player in the spacecraft to playback this disk, and anyway that would only have helped for the sound tracks and would have relied on the unlikely possibility that alien life also uses a mains electricity supply of 120V 60 Hz with a type A electrical plug.

They did helpfully provide a stylus to get any alien started and a comprehensive set of instructions. This Wikipedia article explains how the instructions are meant to be understood, and you can look at / listen to some of the material here .

All this nicely illustrates one of the key challenges of digital curation – with our world being so dependent on digital material today, how can we preserve important digital assets and ensure that they will be accessible in the future? This is potentially a massive challenge for society and in the UK, the Digital Curation Centre has been established as a centre of expertise – a look at their web site illustrates the breadth of the challenge.

Of course, it’s not just long term digital curation that presents access challenges – ensuring at a basic level that file formats we publish are accessible across the exploding range of electronic devices is important. One great format is good old PDF – and given that the initials stand for “Portable Document Format” this should not be a surprise. Put a document into PDF format, and it is immediately accessible on Windows, Mac’s, Linux, IOS devices, Android and any web browser. Anyone using an iPad or similar is likely to have discovered a whole range of “apps” that also allow you to annotate PDF documents with comments, ink and even audio. On campus at RGU, Adobe PDF is available as standard on University PC’s and will allow PDF documents to be created and annotated.

Even better, although PDF was originally a proprietary format launched in 1993, it is now an open standard governed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). It’s history spans 20 years so far – I can’t actually lay my hands on an original PDF version 1.0 document, but I’m sure if I could it would still be accessible with today’s PDF readers.

PDF of course does not cover all digital formats, but we should use it wherever possible in published material and documents to be stored long term. That may merit some policies and further guidance, but you don’t need to wait for that!

Of course, there’s also something ironic about a 1970’s spacecraft carrying an almost obsolete recording format into interstellar space. I have no idea how they would have put a PDF file onto Voyager 1 if PDF had been around at the time, never mind how to instruct an alien in its use.