Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

Aug 22 2015   11:59PM GMT

At Worldcon, Science Fiction Fandom Hurries to Save Its History

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher


Now in its 73rd official year, science fiction fandom is grappling with a very present-day problem: How to archive its history in a way that future generations can reference.

“Archiving for the Future,” a panel session held at this week’s World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Spokane, Wash., included several science fiction historians as well as archiving professionals who discussed the aging of the fandom population, the lack of a clear repository for the history, and the fact that there’s so much material that no single site could actually serve as such a repository.

In the same way that some comic books became scarce because everyone’s moms threw them out, some irreplaceable science fiction fandom material, such as fanzines, has been lost because it was considered ephemera and discarded, panelists lamented. The problem is, many well-known science fiction authors started out as fans and their early work was included in those fanzines. “You have to save everything because you don’t know who that person will become,” one noted.  “Some of those people became Harlan Ellison.”

Moreover, material on paper is vulnerable to a variety of ills ranging from moisture to fire. When you get access to material, share it, panelists were told: You never know when your house is going to burn down or be hit by a hurricane.

Even now, in an era where material is born digital, some is considered ephemeral but is actually significant historically, noted participant Leslie Johnston, whose day job is Director of Digital Preservation at the National Archive.

For example, when the Library of Congress announced in 2010 that it would archive Twitter – a project  still under some criticism — some people didn’t understand why they’d want to bother saving details of what people had for breakfast, she said. But Twitter has become the first place a number of historical events and reactions to them were documented, such as the death of Osama bin Laden. “Twitter is today’s diaries,” she said.

And when such material does manage to make it to a collection rather than being thrown out, it’s often missing much of the context that gives it value, panelists said, citing cases of getting hundreds of photographs “from Worldcon” but with none of the participants, or even which Worldcon it was, identified. “It always comes down to the metadata,” said panelist Pierre Pettinger Jr., whose particular specialty is costuming. People have had to resort to such techniques as identifying venues based on the woodwork and carpeting shown in the pictures, panelists reported.

It was suggested, though, that crowdsourcing could help with some of that identification. Crowdsourcing has been used by a variety of libraries, from the New York Public Library to the British Library, to help identify and verify material ranging from maps to menus.

While some people may think that the preservation problem is solved once material is scanned or otherwise digitized, that’s no panacea, either, Johnston said. “Digitization is not preservation,” she said. “It’s creating a whole new set of materials that need to be preserved.”

What’s the issue? First of all, some of the digitized formats themselves are vulnerable. “CDs make me crazy,” Johnston said, because of their fragility, and thumb drives aren’t much better, relating the case of one that went through the wash.

Second, as time goes on, the hardware and software required to read material in particular formats can become hard to find, no matter how popular it once was, Johnston said. For example, the industry stopped manufacturing slide projectors three years ago, which will make it more difficult to look at slides going forward. She praised organizations such as the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., which holds a large archive of such hardware and software.

This loss of data isn’t just with old files, Johnston cautioned, noting that even some more recent material, which used early versions of cutting-edge storage formats, is now inaccessible.

Another issue, particularly with photographs, is that of the rights, panelists reported. Pettinger noted that he often posts images online that are of a lower quality than others he has because of concerns that people will appropriate them.

Similarly, panelists discussed the conflicting rights among the people who owned a picture vs. the people who might appear in it. Few of those subjects ever signed model releases, said fan history specialist Joe Siclari, who added that he always takes down images on request from the people in them. Fandom needs a better education in rights and how those rights can be transferred and archived, panelists said.

What’s needed now is for members of fandom to take responsibility for identifying and organizing the material they have, while they’re still around to do it, panelists said. In addition, fandom should set up a collaborative collection, where it’s accepted that a repository for one kind of material, such as costuming, will be located at one institution, with other institutions acting as repositories for other kinds of material.

Finally, that information also needs to be made available to fandom by creating repository directories, because there’s so much material that no one institution can take it all, Johnston said. That way, aging fans, and their descendants, know the value of the material and the process to follow for donating it.

In addition, there needs to be a canonical list of the types of hardware and software available, and where, that are available to read the different file formats. That way, archivists will be able to find out how to retrieve past material, panelists said.

Ideally, fans of the future would be able to see material in the same way that the writer originally did, Johnston said, citing the example of professor Salman Rushdie’s archive at Emory University.

Meanwhile, people are on their own. “How do we find the place that wants the stuff we have before we croak?” summarized one session attendee.

10  Comments on this Post

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  • DTeich
    I wasn't able to make that presentation because of some volunteer duties, so thanks for covering the issue. I'll add that it's also an issue for Worldcon. There was a great display on the history of Worldcons and it was all binders of material.

    As you pointed out, the goal is not just to digitize, but to do so in a manner that will hopefully be more open to migrating to even newer technologies, not yet invented, so the archive can remain relevant for years to come.
    160 pointsBadges:
  • ickibar1234
    Digitization is the way to go. 6TB hard drives are about $200 now (the 5400RPM ones) and have them in a RAID 1 configuration with offsite backup and you are good to go. Yea, optical media (CD/DVD/Blurays) suck, lots of plastic used and doesn't store that much. 
    Alternatively to 6TB desktop drives, you could use a ton of Samsung M9T 2TB laptop drives. 

    I don't think you would run into a problem where these drives would be obsolete and inaccessible in the future, as SATA is a very popular interface. 

    As for physical stuff that has value in being physical, I guess a big warehouse with careful monitoring against disasters and theft..
    140 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    As one presenter pointed out -- one who does it for a living -- just digitization doesn't solve the problem, because you still have hardware and software compatibility to worry about. "No problem, I have it saved in this WordPerfect document I have on a Zip disk!"
    9,660 pointsBadges:
  • DTeich
    Ouch, Sharon. My first digital resume was written in an editor on a Balcones computer running CPM and saved to an 8" drive.

    You're exactly right, formats matter and data curation matters more than just digitizing it. The information must be tracked and updated to ensure it remains relevant.
    160 pointsBadges:
  • ickibar1234
    SATA hard drives with the software on the hard driver to open any file type on that drive on a Windows computer and if possible iOS too. There goes the software and hardware incompatibility. 50 years from now, it's not like we won't have computers that are 50 years old and there will be software to convert obsolete document/video file formats to modern ones if they desire too. There may be SATA external enclosures that work with computers 50 years form now.
    140 pointsBadges:
  • Sharon Fisher
    And where does this magical "software to open any file type" come from?

    And what if it predates Windows and iOS?

    I've heard enough people who do this for a living tell me about the problems they've encountered to assume they know what they're talking about. 

    50 years from now? How easy would it be for you to read a 3 1/2" disk, which was from much less than 50 years ago? How about a 5 1/4" or 8"?

    (Incidentally, if you're in Seattle, check out the Living Computer Museum. It's a hoot.)
    9,660 pointsBadges:
  • ickibar1234
    Now is the time to copy the data off of all this old media to more standard media. 3 1/2" USB floppy drives are readily available but not 5 1/4" or 8". I have no idea about 8" but 5 1/4", get an old 486 computer and copy the data off onto hard drives in DOS and then plug the old PATA hard drives into an external USB enclosure to then copy onto 6TB SATA hard drives. 

    There is the question of how long the data will last on a hard drive. Perhaps needs to be refreshed every 10 years, not sure. That can be done with software like Spinrite.
    140 pointsBadges:
  • JoDigital

    Digital data can be migrated by one person and with the click of a button. Analogue data can be lost as the players/readers for those are not made anymore. Like, no more VHS players or 5" floppy disk readers.

    After you digitize your analogue items, then you just need to migrate them to another medium, with the click of a button.

    If you lost data in a floppy disk is because there was no digital plan for those items. They just ended up in a floppy. Can't blame digital options for that.

    But it is much easier to migrate digital info, than keeping analogue items alive (large air-condition, large storage etc), only to find out down the track that you can't find a reader to read them.

    Loss of data occurs only because people refuse to get onboard the digital train.

    10 pointsBadges:
  • basf00
    The answer is Digitize and then let someone else worry about storing it indefinitely. Upload your stuff to Archive.org. They are more than happy to take care of your heritage and make it available for everyone.

    They might even be able to help you retrieve information you once saved in a funky file format on a 5" floppy disk reader or stuff on VHS tape because they have the tools (although this might cost you some money).

    Also don't worry about file formats. Chances are somewhere, someone uploaded the program you used to the archive and they can emulate the computer which ran it.

    If you don't know how to properly digitize your stuff - the archiveteam is currently starting a Wiki which can help you out.

    But what I mostly want to convey is - don't worry about file formats and storage media. There are no ifs and buts. However you digitize your stuff, its fine. Upload it and let others sort it out - just don't let it go away.
    20 pointsBadges:
  • basf00

    And the software deleted the links in my reply...

    Archive.org: archive.org
    Archive.org emulation: archive.org/details/tosec
    Archiveteam digitization Wiki: digitize.archiveteam.org/index.php/Main_Page
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