National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

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What are the relative merits of digital and non-digital preservation of archival materials?  

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There has been a major debate over the past twenty years concerning the relative merits of digital and non-digital methods of archiving information. Digital archiving has the merit of being cheap, fast, and easy to disseminate. It has several fatal flaws, though. First, digital records have a very short life -- most digital media become unstable in 5-10 years, compared with, for example, Mesopotamian clay tablets that are still readable 5,000 years after they were created. Even worse, as technology changes, older digital formats cease to be used, and the very machines needed to read them stop being manufactured and maintained (e.g. magnetic tape, key punch, paper tape), and thus digital records must constantly being ported to new formats , unlike media readable without technological mediation such are papyrus, parchment, tablets, etc.

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