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January 15, 2019

Who is preventing the digital dark age?

Now that almost everyone uses computers, social media and cloud storage, it’s hard to picture ever losing all the information and data we have built up electronically. In fact, if you have ever googled your name, you might have found old pictures and social media posts that you wish weren’t still floating around on the internet.

But according to Richard S. Whitt, Google’s former Corporate Director for Strategic Initiatives, ‘Much of our global cultural heritage, and our own individual and social imprint, is at serious risk of disappearing’ (2016, p.117). That’s because much of the information and data we produce now is created and stored electronically, with no physical backup of any kind. As technology continues to progress, and computers and software change, the likelihood that early 21st century data will one day be unreadable continues to grow.

Academics and libraries that support scholarly content depend on ongoing access to electronic books and journals as a vital part of the research and education process. So, what happens to digital content when a publisher goes under, discontinues a title or stops offering access to a back catalogue of content?

For a long time, nothing happened – the item disappeared.

Fortunately, digital preservationists have stepped in. Now, we have services that ‘trigger’ content to become available in their database once it is no longer hosted and available through the publisher.

digital dark age

Digital preservation services like LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe, CLOCKSS (Controlled Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), HathiTrust and Portico (available through Deakin Library) are playing a critical role in making sure we don’t enter a so-called ‘digital dark age’.

Supported by the library and scholarly publisher communities, these ‘dark archives’ are designed for the long-term curation and care of electronic content – an enduring failsafe solution to ensure that online published content can never become permanently unavailable.

Deakin University Librarian Craig Anderson notes that without these sorts of services, ‘our cultural history is lost and gone forever when a publisher goes out of business or decides that something is no longer worth providing.’

The library is committed to being part of the solution when it comes to preserving important academic research. As an example, in 2018 we advocated for funding to transfer late 1990s video recordings of the Victorian coast from magnetic tapes to a more modern digital format. These tapes contain important research that will only gain value with age, as it will help future scientists and researchers track the impact of climate change on our coast. As a result of these efforts, approximately 175 of the 500 videos have been preserved to date. There is more work to be done, but we will continue to look for solutions to ensure this work isn’t lost or degraded.

Of course, now that scientists have developed a way to store digital data in DNA, according to Science Magazine we may not be far away from storing ‘every bit of datum ever recorded by humans in a container about the size and weight of a couple of pickup trucks’ (2017). But until that time comes, we will rely on digital preservation databases like Portico and the work of academic libraries to make sure the digital data current scientists and researchers produce doesn’t fade into technological obscurity.


Service, R F 2017, ‘DNA could store all of the world’s data in one room’, Science Magazine, retrieved 18 December 2018,

Whitt, R S 2016, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly: Technical, Policy, and Financial Actions to Avert the Coming Digital Dark Ages’, Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 33, Issue 2 (2016), pp. 117-229, retrieved 18 December 2018, HeinOnline database



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