Changing technology – thinking about digital preservation

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 7 May 2013 | 13:52

How do we deal with technology change? Ever thought about accessing the stuff you did twenty years ago? What’s that? You are having a hard time getting a floppy disk drive? Maybe the data format is unreadable or the media has been damaged? 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks: Public Domain 7 June 2009: George Chernilevsky

This is a problem that will continue to face us in many fields: how do you ensure that today’s data is still accessible in twenty or even fifty years' time? For a lot of areas, maybe we do not want to bother, it's the here and now that counts.

Looking at it in a longer-term context, we want to be able to access all our scientific data (of which we now produce terabytes and above every year) far into the future. We also want to be able to compare the new data we generate with the old data that we generated years ago, to rerun experiments or perform new analysis on old data. But if we cannot access it or if we are unable to understand what the data is or how it was produced we immediately run into problems before we even start.

Digital art is facing this issue as well. The underlying technologies on which a work of art is based change in production, reproduction and storage. In the digital art world, the challenge is not only to preserve the art, but also to ensure that the artist’s intent is not lost and that their vision is preserved into the future.

How then is the data to be preserved? How will the art migrate between formats? We are talking not only about data formats but also storage formats. It is a challenge to deal with how changing formats affect the art: is there any loss in the data or the concept? Are colours changed? All of these issues need to be addressed and checked by preservationists and curators at galleries. Even more complex is where the art is reliant on underlying software, such as Becoming (2003, Michael Craig-Martin), a software-based artwork. What happens when the programming language used for this piece of art is no longer supported by modern platforms?

Pericles: Evolving Data Logo


Pericles is an EU project involving EPCC, Kings College London, Tate Galleries and other partners that will look at what is needed for a long-term digital preservation system. Having just started in February, the project is still in its early stages and after meeting archivists and staff at Tate Galleries, the challenges and needs are many but enthusiasm is high. I will blog about the progress of this project as it continues.

For more information about Pericles please visit:

Update: Alistair has written a follow-up post about the project.


Alistair Grant, EPCC


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