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The Environmental Impact of Digital Preservation

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Audiovisual Archive Network
Presentation type: 
spoken paper
29 Sept Tuesday
Start time: 
1 230
Grand Auditorium

Archives with audiovisual collections are racing the clock to digitize video and audio tape before total media failure and obsolescence. The resulting digital files are stored on spinning disk (servers, hard drives) and/or digital tape, both of which will fail or become obsolete in time and must be replaced. As collections are digitized, millions of audio and video recordings will be discarded globally in the coming years. Archives are only beginning to sense this inevitability; digital data destruction and recycling is already common in data center operations. Disposal of computers, servers, and storage media tends to focus on recycling by re-use, but obsolete media cannot be re-used. Thus, much magnetic media and e-waste goes to landfills and are incinerated, creating a toxic environment for humans. According to the 2013 Blacksmith Institute report, an e-waste processing center in Ghana was the most toxic site on the planet -- ahead of Chernobyl.
Media disposal is not the only area where audiovisual and digital preservation impacts the environment. The process of keeping digital files alive over time requires power and natural resources. Data centers consume large amounts of electricity, often generated by burning coal. And while offline storage on digital tape doesn’t use electricity for storage, the files must be migrated to new media every two generations (roughly ten years), leaving the older tapes candidates for landfills. How will our media and digital archives contribute to damaging the planet, and what can be done to mitigate our actions? Digital collections could require a stricter appraisal and selection policy than legacy collections to decrease the amount of digital content that is saved. This paper will outline possible options to decrease the collective “carbon footprint” while sustaining digital content entrusted to archives.