a horrible coincidence

A paradox? Not quite.

But a few things have inspired me to think about archives lately – use vs. preservation.

The sad fact is, the more you lean toward preservation, the less access you have. Using causes damage, speeds aging.

Preservation puts a barrier between people and materials. Digital preservation doesn’t capture a full physical experience, just as one cannot “print out” a web site without contradicting the very fundamental point of hyperlinking and the technology of the web.

So the more you use your favorite things, the more you destroy them.

A few years ago, I salvaged a nearly 8 year old hard drive out of my ex-desktop computer after I noticed that the main drive was exhibiting weird behavior and sometimes not loading the operating system. My creative work was all saved on the second drive so I took it out, hooked it into my external drive enclosure with USB connection, and hooked it up to my laptop to get my stuff off of it before it started fritzing like the other drive was.

Well, it turned out that that main drive, the one that contained applications, games, etc., stuff that I don’t care about saving, was the one in better shape. It was the one I’d used less – ie., I had overwritten fewer sectors fewer times by not constantly saving new things, deleting, overwriting, editing, accessing. That, of course, is what I did on the drive where I did all my Web site design, photoshop coloring, where I saved all the art I scanned into the computer and where I resaved edited copies. Where I saved .PSD originals that could be re-edited with Photoshop with all the layers preserved, and the small and large .JPG versions that went online, and all the little thumbnails I’d made and organized into folders for the site.

Guess what? By using that drive I destroyed it. By working and reworking, by loving what went into that place, I lost it forever.

I had to use a data recovery service to even get what remained off of it, because it committed filesystem suicide when I tried to access a folder that pointed to something bad.

What was retrieved was, as I both feared but now expected, was the oldest stuff that had simply been scanned and then left to sit there, my artwork from middle school, not the stuff from high school and college that I had multiple versions of and put up on my web site. Those screenshots that I took of the custom design of each iteration of my web site? Gone too.

Possibly the saddest thing is that I lost an entire 30-page issue of the comic I was working on at the time. I had done the most recent version entirely in Photoshop. I scanned in pencil drawings and painted them in color. It took me, if I remember correctly, about a year to finish.

Some things I still have physical copies of. But they will not last forever, either. “Archival” quality paper still rots in the end.

And the more you take it out of an archival quality storage container or facility to look at or touch or smell it, you damage it a little more. You get one step closer to total loss.

I was idly thinking about this hard drive experience when someone posted to a listserv looking for work on the disintegration of paper books due to use, such as points of heavy use in a book. Everyone who replied just gave links to papers on digital rotting. It was ridiculous.

One article caught my eye though: one from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) that talks about exactly this coincidence, that is not quite a paradox but is simply a tragic fact of time. The sectors of drives that are used most die the fastest. The ones you touch the most rot away beneath your hands.

What you love the most is perhaps what you lose the fastest.

A rotting hard drive is perhaps a strange illustration of this, but it couldn’t be a truer case.

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