Digital Dark Ages

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The Digital Dark Ages is a common term for a potential time in the future when a substantial portion of electronic forms of information has been lost. People warning of an impending Digital Dark Ages usually base their claims on one of the following issues with maintaining digital information:

  1. Interoperability. Accessing older digital file formats and storage media (e.g., an 8-inch floppy disc) can be difficult, as shown by the problems experienced by the Domesday Project.
  2. Archiving. The Wayback Machine doesn't cover everything. Not all digital publishers create open archives of content which is being updated or removed. Even the contents of whitehouse.gov have faced these problems.
  3. Preservation. Just as physical materials can be destroyed, so can the physical manifestation of electronic information. Multiple libraries relying on a single digital source can increase this risk, although backup systems such as LOCKSS add increased protection.
  4. Access. Electronic subscriptions only provide limited access to information, as opposed to purchased printed materials. Digital content providers may withdraw content or charge prohibitive access fees. Technological devices, such as DRM applications, as well as legal restrictions, such as increased copyright protections (especially for orphan works), may also provide mechanisms for drastically limiting access.
  5. Censorship. Historical documents wholly controlled by an interested entity are susceptible to being rewritten or withdrawn (cf. the Eurasia propaganda and "unwords" in 1984). Digital information is especially vulnerable to being changed without a trace.

Although the above issues are all tangible threats to maintaining the world's knowledge in electronically, there is nothing to suggest that librarians aware of these problems with digital library planning are not capable of averting a widespread loss of important public information. However much private information is simply not worth the time or money it would cost to recover and has already been lost.

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