Obsolescence – a key challenge in the digital age

There is a widely held perception that information recorded digitally is secure forever. This idea has been reinforced by marketing messages for products like audio CDs, personal computers and digital cameras. This idea is appealing, but it is completely untrue.

The rapid pace of development in computer hardware, operating systems and application software, coupled with the short effective life of most storage media, means that decades of digital data are at risk or already lost. The long-term accessibility and authenticity of digital records can only be assured through proactive preservation measures.

Digital records are subject to three potential forms of obsolescence:

  1. The physical carrier of the record becomes obsolete. Standard media of the 1980s, such as 8 inch and 5¼ inch floppy disks, are no longer commercially available. Over time, current media such as CDs and DVDs will also become obsolete.
  2. The hardware needed to access the record becomes obsolete. Both the drives needed to read the media and the computers required to operate them have become obsolete in our rapidly changing world. It is almost impossible to obtain working drives for 8 inch and 5¼ inch floppy disks. Most new computers have a usable life of only three to five years and are not fitted with floppy disk drives.
  3. The software needed to access the record becomes obsolete. This includes either the software to read and write the record or the operating system to run the software, or both. For example, during the 1980s WordStar was widely used, but it is now no longer readily available. The fact that WordStar used a closed data format makes continuing accessibility even more problematic.
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014