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Storing Books against Digital Disaster

It was interesting to read that there is an effort to store physical books so that they will be available in the event that there is a catastrophe that might wipe out all electronic versions or in case the Library of Congress were destroyed.

In an article by David Streitfeld, “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books,” on the front page of The New York Times of March 4, 2012, the reporter describes a project in Richmond, California whereby books are stored in 40-foot shipping containers in a warehouse. You can find the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/technology/internet-archives-repository-collects-thousands-of-books.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=books%20storage&st=cse [1]

The project is a brainchild of Brewster Kahle. Mr. Kahle is the founder of the Internet Archive, which is “devoted to preserving Web pages … and making texts more widely available.” Despite—or perhaps because of—his experience with the Web, Mr. Kahle is committed to preserving some 10 million books in his repository.

Information storage and retrieval expert Michel Lesk thinks that the probability of a massive loss of digital information, such as envisaged by Kahle, is very low, as would be the need to re-digitize all those books.

It is interesting to equate Kahle’s effort with what I saw done in preparation for Y2K. There was a real fear that business records, such as customer lists and financial records would be destroyed or corrupted because of the Year 2000 issue of misinterpreting the year as the millennium date rolled over from 1999 to 2000. Such fears may well have been realized had not so much effort been put into application code remediation. The firm for which I was working took the trouble to print out all current critical business information stored in computers and stored the reports offsite just in case the electronic records became inaccessible. Fortunately the loss of data did not occur, but it could have.
Also, it is difficult to envisage an event that would wipe out or corrupt all digitally stored data in a single sweep. The only one that comes to mind would be a huge electromagnetic pulse, which could be a natural event or a targeted attack. One might also envisage a hacker attack of huge magnitude and effect against a major developed country, although it’s not clear how that would eliminate all data since storage is across many nations and in the cloud.

It is also possible that hard copies of books of all types will be published, distributed and read electronically. In which case, we would stop producing and reading physical books. If a digital catastrophe were then to occur, I could see that a whole new generation would not recall how to actually use books, much as young folks today would probably be mystified with mechanical calculators, rotary-dial telephones, manual and electric typewriters and carbon paper. If that were to occur, then there might have to be a training effort to teach younger generations to read books along with technical support, as depicted in this hilarious video on “Medieval Helpdesk …,” which you can find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ [2]

Nevertheless, there is indeed a serious and ubiquitous concern that is highlighted by Kahle’s project. Our increasing dependency on electronic data, as well as on the storage of so much information and so many documents online, does leave us vulnerable to irretrievably-lost data. Much will not matter, but certain critical documents do need to be preserved on a universal medium, and a medium that fits the bill is indeed paper. After all, availability is a key component of security’s CIA triad, isn’t it? So as information security professionals we should be interested in, and concerned about, the phenomenon against which Kahle is so diligently working.