Internet Library: Salvation or Bit-Rot?

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When asked how he saw the future Internet Library, Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet expressed a deep concern about the way information will be stored and passed on to future generations. Controlling and managing the immense amount of information processed daily online and through various digital forms can pose a threat to the integrity of data contained by an Internet Library.

When you hear the word library, usually an image of a brick building filled with books comes to mind. At a more abstract level, it is just a storage place for information, whether under the form of books or CDs, journals and DVDs. This information doesn’t necessary have to be stored in a physical form. Wikipedia can be considered a library and so can Google, the search engine that connects the Internet into one big archive. It is becoming more and more clear that the future library will be a big pile of bits interpreted by software.

However, this can become a problem if the bits saved for thousand of years lose their meaning and end up just a bit-rot that no existing software can interpret, are no longer executable or you can’t run it on any platform. The real challenge of creating an Internet Library is to find a way to store and protect virtual information for posterity. And we’re not talking about one or two generations, but thousand of years. The best example is the floppy disk from school that everybody loved. Although they are not completely inaccessible, you can’t use your current computer to access an old essay stored on a floppy. Imagine the same scenario for an Internet Library, but amplified over hundreds of years.

Vint Cerf believes that we must create a place where information can be safely stored, managed and kept. Most people imagine that all they have to do to access digital information is to run the Google index. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. If we cannot invent a whole infrastructure that can make the data reusable after a long period of tine, then we will deny our potential of having all the knowledge of the human kind at our fingertips.

But the Internet Library is closer than we may think. After Wikipedia managed to put an end to an era and killed the 200 year old Encyclopaedia Britannica, Google started the Future Library project, an initiative that aims to transform public libraries in Greece into hubs of creativity, learning and media labs. The Future Library’s exclusive donor, Stavros Niarchos Foundationis is pouring €560m into a Cultural Center where the Greek National Opera and the National Library will be housed. On the surface it looks like the traditional bricks-and-mortar library. The question is how will this hub of creativity preserve its information and for how long.

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