Preservation Beyond the Bits: An Interview with Linda Tadic

Linda Tadic is founder and CEO of Digital Bedrock (www.digitalbedrock.com), a managed digital preservation and consulting service in Los Angeles. A founding member and former president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, she has written and given lectures on AV metadata, copyright, and digital asset management and preservation. She is adjunct professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies’ Media Archives Studies program.

We asked Tadic about her research into the environmental consequences of digital preservation. Her presentation “The Environmental Impact of Digital Preservation,” which she’s given in Portland, OR, Singapore, and Paris, describes the relationship of digital preservation to ongoing environmental degradation and outlines ways archivists and archival institutions can lessen their impact. Slides and notes for the presentation can be found at www.digitalbedrock.com/resources.

This interview was conducted over email.


BloggERS Editors: Could you tell us how you first got interested in the question of the ecological implications of digital preservation?

Linda Tadic: It was a confluence of experience and information.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, I’d always been aware of humanity’s impact on the environment. The skies of Los Angeles were brown, and some days you had to turn on your car’s headlights at noon because of the thick brown “fog.” California pulled back from the abyss, enacted strict regulations, and the air quality has dramatically improved in just a few decades. So I saw that it’s possible to reverse negative influences.

The media and storage devices in our collections are of an ephemeral nature. Over the past ten years, as an archivist who has managed video and digital collections, I began wondering what will happen to all the magnetic media (video and audiotape) that are nearing the end of their life expectancy. There is a push at archives to digitize as much magnetic media as possible before it’s too late. When the media no longer has readable particles, they become what I call “media carcasses”—the container is there, but the content has degraded or can’t be read. When one considers that there’s a lot more media in the world than what is held at public archives, the problem becomes stunning.

I started researching whether magnetic media can be recycled rather than dumped in a landfill, and found that it’s complicated.  The tape itself can’t be recycled, even though the Mylar (PET) base can, since there’s no method yet to extract the magnetic particles from the Mylar. Only the plastic cassette shell and metal screws can be recycled, but even the cassette shell’s recycling potential depends on the type of plastic formulation. I interviewed a few recyclers, who told me that few businesses are paying the expense to dissemble tapes, so the tapes are first shredded as whole units, then dumped or incinerated. Consider that many businesses, organizations, and individuals don’t bother taking their media to recyclers; in those instances, the tapes are dumped into landfills. Then I started thinking about digital data tape adding to the mess, especially since LTO data tape is migrated every 2 generations. What happens to the older generation tapes?

I expanded into thinking about spinning disk storage after reading an article and report on the ten toxic places on the planet. One of the spots mentioned is Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where there was an e-waste recycling facility. E-waste was burned in the open, causing toxic matter to be exuded in the air and leech into the soil and groundwater. That article was the catalyst; it opened my eyes that as stewards of digital content, we need to think not only of the electricity we use, but also the hardware, storage media, and recycling potential of storage media.

BloggERS: What single aspect of digital preservation do you think has the largest environmental impact?

Tadic: There isn’t one aspect. Energy use is the obvious one, but we also have to consider our direct toxic endangerment to people and the planet through the hardware and storage media we choose to use and discard. Digital bits are stored on something, and that “something” not only uses energy, but it has built-in migration paths. We need to consider the totality of our choices and actions, which is what I tried to capture in my presentation.

BloggERS: When archivists think of storage, we are usually thinking about capacity, not energy consumption and efficiency. When looking into procuring storage solutions, what should archivists keep in mind? 

Tadic: If an organization is storing their digital content themselves, consider putting large preservation files and infrequently-used files on data tape. Only store files that require immediate access online. Besides lowering energy use, this also makes economic sense, since disk-based storage is 26 times more expensive than tape-based. The media is more recyclable than spinning disk storage, which contain rare and heavy earth metals.

Virtualize your servers so more than one application, database, etc. can run on a server. This decreases the number of servers you need, and by extension you’ll have fewer servers to power and recycle.

If an organization is depending on cloud storage or hosted colocation at a data center, then research the cloud storage provider’s “green” record. What are their energy sources—coal? renewables? How have they built their data centers to be energy efficient? Greenpeace releases an annual report titled Clicking Clean: a Guide to Building the Green Internet[1] that reviews the major cloud and data colocation providers.

Also consider the amount of data storage your organization is retaining. Archives can establish appraisal and retention policies for digital content just as they do for physical items. Do we need to keep everything? Similarly—and I recognize this is probably my most contentious opinion—is it essential that every analog media be digitized/reformatted at the absolutely highest resolution, which will create more storage, which requires energy and media to store and maintain over time? This is more of an issue with original video and film-based content, which can result in very large target preservation files if digitized uncompressed. Perhaps the most highly-valued content should be digitized at the highest resolution, and lower-tier priorities at lower resolutions (but in a non-proprietary format to facilitate future migrations if necessary).

We should avoid fetishizing the digital object. I’ve come to believe that it’s more important to save as much magnetic-based content as we can now before it’s gone, and for those organizations with limited budgets and/or concerned with their environmental impact, sometimes that means digitizing at less than optimal resolutions. The key thing is to save the content that lives on the dying media, even if it’s captured in fewer bits. We’re running out of time when it comes to preserving magnetic media.

BloggERS: Additionally, archivists are often so concerned with the informational content of the data we receive that we forget the physical component of data. How can archivists address the e-waste that they take possession of?

Tadic: Data lives on something: spinning disk (whether portable external or server-dedicated hard drives), data tape, solid state drives, or even optical media. None of this media provides permanent storage. Data will be migrated off one media and stored on another for some time to come. If data is received by an archive on physical media, it must be moved from the original storage device to the archive’s storage platform for processing, preservation, and access. This means that from the point of acquisition an archive will be responsible for a minimum of two storage devices: the original and the current—and of course through future migrations, there will be more. This media will eventually be discarded.

When procuring storage media, purchase devices that use less electricity and where the manufacturer has made an effort to use recyclable materials. Most storage manufacturers have been developing technologies that use less energy for a while. For example, servers are increasingly being built to be more energy efficient. And a few years ago, hard disk manufacturers began releasing hermetically sealed hard disks that contain helium rather than air. Helium is lighter than air so causes less friction on the spinning disks, using 25% less power and also running a bit cooler. Since there is less friction, logically the disks should have longer life, so there’s a longer period between migrating to new media. However, longevity studies haven’t been released yet.

But nothing is perfect: There is also an environmental concern using helium. Helium is a naturally occurring gas with limited supplies. It can’t be synthetically created, yet is a critical component in science, medicine, and technology applications (as well as party balloons). There have already been warnings of an impending helium shortage. Consumer-oriented helium hard drives will be released this year; currently they are only available as enterprise server HDDs. They’re expensive, but can pack 8–10 TB in one disk.

If you’re using data tape, identify a tape manufacturer that uses recycled plastics in the cartridge shell and/or formulates the shell using plastic that is recyclable. For example, Sony has published that it uses recycled plastic in its LTO cartridge shells.

When the storage media is dead, consider the re-use or recycling options. Whether applying “recycling through re-use” or pure destruction and recycling, use a vendor that is eStewards-certified[2] or R2-certified by SERI[3] (Sustainable Electronics Recycling International).

BloggERS: What are a few simple steps archivists can take to mitigate their contribution to environmental degradation?

Tadic: I describe actions in more detail in my presentation, which can be found at www.digitalbedrock.com/resources. In summary, mitigation can be done through policy and technology choices.

Staff actions:

  1. Establish digital appraisal and retention policies. Don’t keep everything, to lower storage and ongoing maintenance requirements.
  2. Digitize selected content at lower resolution
  3. Schedule digital preservation processes to occur less frequently so long as the digital objects are stored on stable media. This decreases energy use.

Technology choices:

  1. Storage medium (spinning disks, digital tape): Store infrequently used and large preservation masters offline on digital tape.
  2. Decrease electricity use by increasing the server room temperature, storing more files offline on tape (see #4), purchasing energy-efficient hardware, set servers to go into inactive mode when not in use, and virtualizing machines.
  3. Consider storage media recycling potential (e.g., tape vs. spinning disk)
  4. Power supply choices: where possible, choose renewable energy sources
  5. “Green” cloud and colocation vendors: If you must use a cloud storage provider or data center, research providers’ green records. Use providers that have made a deliberate effort to decrease their dirty energy use.

Notes
[1] http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/2015ClickingClean.pdf
[2] http://e-stewards.org/find-a-recycler/
[3] http://www.sustainableelectronics.org/find-a-recycler/

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