I learned a valuable lesson in high school when a paper that I had saved to my computer (an Apple IIe) was lost. With a typing speed hovering around 10 words a minute, it was painful. Since that experience, I have backed up my data and made sure I knew how to restore files. Later I learned about the dangers of digital media (it degrades more quickly than paper, and formats change (try opening your MSWord 1.0 documents)). But with the Internet and stable formats like HTML and pdf, it seemed like the problem of digital storage was largely solved. Yes, links got broken, but a quick Google search would find the correct URL, and cloud storage is almost too cheap to meter!
Boy, was I wrong!!
I found this out recently when looking for one of my old Columbia Daily Tribune columns on the Tribune website. It turns out that after Gatehouse Media purchased the Tribune in 2016, the cost of maintaining the archive of old columns and stories was not an expense they wanted to incur (and there was probably some expense with importing the data into their systems). So, they ditched the Tribune’s archive, keeping only new, post-acquisition articles. Luckily, the wicked-smart librarians at the Daniel Boone Regional library got a database company to take over the archive and provide free access for library members. I quickly scraped all my old work and created my own online and offline archive.
It would not be a significant loss to humankind if my Tribune columns were lost, but what about some of the scientific papers I co-authored in the 80s and 90s?
I always knew that I was not the type of person who would make a dramatic “dent” in the universe. Frankly, I didn’t want to work 20 hours a day during my 20s and 30s like Bill Gates, and it was not in my nature to be a jerk to those I worked with, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. However, I assumed that my small contributions would add up over time. And I would be a small, perhaps barely detectable, vector pulling humanity toward truth and goodness. While another lifetime ago, I also assumed that the eternal nature of science literature would mean that the echo of my small contributions back then would last for a long time.
It turns out that a series of bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions had also made…