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Archive Science

I went to a Digital Printing conference in Florida earlier this month. It made me realize how weird my career path is. I have three degrees in geology, working as a chemist doing research on various inorganic colloids, and ultimately going to the most germane conference I can find: digital printing.

I've been to a wide variety of chemistry and carbon conferences in my life, but I had no idea \ what a digital printing conference would be like. It was actually very interesting. Most of the talks I went to dealt with inkjet printing technology and media. But one paper stood out and it had nothing to do with inkjet in particular. It was a talk on managing digital data and archives by a researcher in New York.

I'd never really thought about it that much, but I have disks from my dissertation and thesis that contain data and text that are old enough now to be completely unreadable by just about every computer around. I even have some data "backed up" on a couple of 8" floppies (yes they actually used to make some floppies 8" across!) I know these will never be opened again even if I could do so. But the researcher was talking about the problems incumbent on people who need to archive digital data in a world where the software necessary to even open the files changes on a year by year basis. She proposed the concept of an "active archive", which I thought somewhat oxymoronic. The whole idea of an archive is that it can be left alone for long periods of time.

That's when she brought up the concept of metadata. I'd heard the word a few times, but had little idea of what it meant. Apparently (and correct if I'm wrong) it's basically the contextual and descriptive information to help make sense of an archived image or data. Kind of like the writing on the back of an old photo. But it appears to also contain the information on how to open and read a digital file as well. Unfortunately it sounds like even the metadata can be irretrievably lost without it's own metadata on how to open and read the metadata! So even though many of our cartoons are archived, ultimately these 0's and 1's will evaporate into the ether and new internet cartoonists can follow us and have a completely fresh slate on which to present their ideas.

Kinda sad, isn't it?