Call for government to come clean about data storage limits of new media

A recent library conference heard calls for the Official Information Act to be used if necessary, reports Stephen Bell

There were calls for the Official Information Act to be used if necessary to discover exactly what the technical shortcomings of the various new media are when it comes to data storage.

The demand was made by some participants attending a National Library seminar, which was held in Wellington recently.

While many of those attending the conference on preserving digital records were grateful to filled on what is happening in this area, some participants wanted more information and suggested the Act could be used to dig out what was described as “confidential data” on the shortcomings of newer data storage media.

Wellington’s George Holley told how he is involved in a photographic preservation project and relies on Iomega Zip disks for much of his backup storage. He told the seminar he was surprised he could only store five or six pictures on a 100MB disk.

Holley freely admits to being a “techno-peasant” and says he has not checked the size of the files concerned, “but they can’t be that big [in the tens of megabytes] because they were emailed to me.”

In the past, Zip drives have been problematic. One of the problems included the notorious “click of death”. The glitch emerged soon after mass marketing of the drives began in the late 1990s. A clicking sound, caused by the head unsuccessfully seeking a misaligned index track, presaged the death of the drive. Any user who misguidedly inserted other disks — seeking to identify whether the fault was a drive fault or a disk fault — risked rendering those disks unusable as well.

Threats of lawsuits eventually brought compensation for users from the vendor, Iomega.

There were also other intriguing bugs, including one that abruptly made files at the root level of some Zip disks read-only, so preventing deletion. Files in folders could still be written and deleted. This could be solved by copying the files back to the hard drive, reformatting the disk and setting up an explicit “root” folder, before reloading the data.

Another, unidentified, conference participant criticised public bodies, including the National Library, for not doing a better job of disseminating information on media shortcomings like the “click of death”.

Users should get hold of the information the National Library has on characteristics of digital media using the Official Information Act, he said. They should insist on assurances concerning the actual lifetime of various media and formats, unmodified by “comfortable disclaimers”, he said.

Speaker Deborah Woodyard-Robinson replied that even experts in the area are feeling their way in the new and uncertain digital world. Zip disk problems were as unforeseeable as the death of the “superior” Beta videotape format — to which some large libraries had, at the time, entrusted all their video content, she said.

Batteries of tape players then had to be employed to industriously copy the material over from the Beta format — Beta had proved too expensive for the mass market — to the newly successful VHS format.

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