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A digital archiving standard. (Up front: news, trends & analysis).

Librarians, researchers, and archivists have long debated ways to preserve digital documents long-term. Two current, widely practiced methods, most experts agree, are not good enough--updating and converting older files into newer versions is too labor-intensive and saving old files is risky because future software and computers may not be able to read them.

According to the New York Times, Raymond Lorie, a researcher at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, developed a prototype for a "universal virtual computer," a system with an architecture and language designed to be logical and accessible so that future computer developers will be able to write instructions to emulate, or mimic, it on their machines. Emulation is a computer science technique in which code is written for an operating system (OS) to allow it to mimic in every detail the operation of another OS, enabling it to run any program that was written for the other OS.

Lorie demonstrated his system for the National Library of the Netherlands, which hired IBM to investigate a way to preserve electronic publications.

Before it can be a viable solution, the universal computer would first have to be adopted as a standard throughout the computer industry. Software developers with new file formats would need to write additional software that could read and display the files in the language of the universal computer. At the same time, descriptions of the universal computer would need to be widely available for future computer developers. Then, 100 years from now, people using different computer architectures would only have one hurdle to leap to read old formats on new machines--writing a set of instructions so the universal computer could be emulated on whatever machines exist then.

In Lorie's approach, a program written for the universal virtual computer extracts all the data stored in a file, for example, the data in a PDF file. This program does not try to reproduce the full range of services offered by Acrobat Reader. It reads and displays the contents of the PDF file using tags, extra semantic information designed to reduce the confusion of people 25 years from now who may be unsure of what they are viewing.

According to Johan Steenbakkers, director of information technology for the Dutch National Library, "If the universal virtual computer became a standard for digital archiving, it would be a major step forward," offering a controlled, one-time migration to a specific preservation format.

But some experts don't see this solution as the Holy Grail of digital archiving and prefer that archivists preserve the original software rather than adopt Lorie's data extraction program. They believe data extraction is too limited because, while it would provide the content of a document, it would not preserve its original form and format or look and feel.
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Author:Swartz, Nikki
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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