Digital obsolescence is a situation where a digital resource is no longer readable because the physical media, the reader required to read the media, the hardware, or the software that runs on it, is no longer available. A prime example of this is the BBC Domesday Project. Cornell University Library’s digital preservation tutorial (now hosted by ICPSR) has a timeline of obsolete media formats, called the “Chamber of Horrors”, that shows how rapidly new technologies are created and cast aside.
The rapid evolution and proliferation of different kinds of computer hardware, modes of digital encoding, operating systems and general or specialized software ensures that digital obsolescence will become a problem in the future. Many versions of word-processing programs, data-storage media, standards for encoding images and films are considered "standards" for some time, but in the end are always replaced by new versions of the software or completely new hardware. Files meant to be read or edited with a certain program (for example Microsoft Word) will be unreadable in other programs, and as operating systems and hardware move on, even old versions of programs developed by the same company become impossible to use on the new platform (for instance, older versions of Microsoft Works, before Works 4.5, cannot be run under Windows 2000 or later).
Early attention was brought to the challenges of preserving machine-readable data by the work of Charles M Dollar in the 1970s, but it was only during the 1990s that libraries and archives came to appreciate the significance of the problem and has been discussed among professionals in those branches, though so far without any obvious solutions other than continual forward-migration of files and information to the latest data-storage standards. File formats should be widespread, backward compatible, often upgraded, and, ideally, open format. The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage cites the following as “de facto” formats that are unlikely to be rendered obsolete in the near future: uncompressed TIFF and ASCII and RTF (for text).
In order to prevent this from happening, it is important that an institution regularly evaluate and explore its current technologies and evaluate its long term business model.
Untangling copyright issues also presented a significant challenge for projects attempting to overcome the obsolescence issues related to the BBC Domesday Project. In addition to copyright surrounding the many contributions made by the estimated 1 million people who took part in the project, there are also copyright issues that relate to the technologies employed. It is likely that the Domesday Project will not be completely free of copyright restrictions until at least 2090, unless copyright laws are revised for earlier expiration.
- Rothenberg, J. (1998). Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation
- Hedstrom, M. (1995). Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries
- National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage. (2002). NINCH Guide to Good Practice in the Digital Representation and Management of Cultural Heritage Materials
- Charlesworth, Andrew (5 November 2002). "The CAMiLEON Project: Legal issues arising from the work aiming to preserve elements of the interactive multimedia work entitled "The BBC Domesday Project."" (Microsoft Word). Kingston upon Hull: Information Law and Technology Unit, University of Hull. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
- Miller, Robin (2002-06-06). "Security through obsolescence". Linux.com. Retrieved 2008-07-18.