CMU Student Pugwash

  • Data Preservation

Ever since the first caveman drew a picture on a rock, we have been storing information from the present so that others might use it in the future. Whether it was monks laboriously hand-copying texts in their monasteries after the fall of the Roman Empire or Egyptian Museum staff inventorying their collection under army protection amidst the chaos of the 2011 revolution, dedicated people have gone to great lengths to maintain the records and relics of the past.

Despite this, sometimes items of immense historical value have been lost forever. The burning of the Library of Alexandria in ancient times has come to symbolize loss of knowledge, while more recently ISIS destroyed innumerable archeological sites, libraries, and historical manuscripts located in its territory. Even more recently, on September 2 of this year the National Museum of Brazil burned down almost in its entirety, costing humanity and the historical record millions of items, some of which were truly unique and irreplaceable.

Such calamities are a grim reminder that our preservation efforts aren't perfect. However, the growth of the digital medium to complement the physical offers new opportunities. In the wake of the Brazilian fire National Museum staff have appealed to former visitors across the globe for any images they have of its old exhibits. Such digital memories cannot replace all that was lost, but could new technologies change that? Allow us to more effectively blur the line between physical objects and digital data? A new medium of preservation naturally leads to many such questions.

Is a detailed computer model or even a carefully crafted replica a worthy substitute for the original? How should we preserve less tangible elements of our history like language dialects or skills at crafts? The same question applies to purely electronic things such as web articles and tweets. What do we even consider worthy of preservation? And once that's all decided, who has the responsibility of maintaining everything? Is it sufficient to have just one grand repository, or should there be multiple ones to prevent another Library of Alexandria or National Museum of Brazil?

At the end of every meeting we take suggestions and vote on what to discuss next week. So if you have a topic that you're just dying to talk about, be sure to join us at 5:30 in Wean 5310 over free pizza to discuss Data Preservation.

Free food and drinks will be provided!

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