Treasures of the digital age at risk of being lost for ever

While sound archives are restored, modern online texts are in danger of vanishing along with redundant technology
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The Independent Online

Huge numbers of texts will be lost for ever unless the Government acts to preserve the bank of digital material building up, the head of the British Library has warned.

Websites, online-only journals and CD-roms - all challenges to the tradition of the printed word - are in danger of becoming obsolete in just a few years.

Books, scientific journals and films which are published only on the internet could be lost unless a system to store the digital material in permanent form is put in place, said Lynne Brindley the chief executive of the British Library.

There has been an explosion in electronic publications over the past few years. In 2002, there were about 52,000 publications but that figure is projected to rise to 193,000 next year.

The writer Stephen King is among authors who have experimented with online-only books, which, if no action is taken, will fail to be preserved in the UK. Last year, the filmThis Is Not A Love Song, written by The Full Monty scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, was released only on the internet.

The BBC's £2.5m Domesday Project, a snapshot of Britain in 1986, is a prime example of the difficulties looming on the horizon if no universal, permanent method of digital storage is found and used. This project stored information and photographs on video discs but within a few years the system used to play them had become obsolete and the discs were rendered virtually useless.

Academics have since had to develop software that will emulate the original BBC computer system to ensure its continued accessibility.

Legislation passed last year enshrined the principle that electronic and non-print publications should be deposited at the British Library in the same way as books, pamphlets, maps, printed music, journals and newspapers. However the changes to the Legal Deposit Act did not address the problem of the added costs entailed.

The library is happy to lead the digital archive but says it needs increased funding of £12m to collect, collate and manage the material. The Government is considering the request but so far has been refusing to guarantee any extra cash. Last year about 60,000 items were published electronically in the UK.

Ms Brindley said: "There is very much a sense that our grandchildren will not have a full picture of history if we don't do something. Although that sounds a bit exaggerated, if we're not preserving and collecting digital material, we're getting less and less of a picture of our society.

"It is a mammoth task, but it is better than throwing up your hands and saying we can't do it. Books don't deteriorate that quickly, so you don't need to act straight away to preserve them, but that is not an option in the digital world. Preservation can't be done at a later stage - it has to be done at the point it is acquired because formats become obsolete very quickly, or, in the case of websites, they just disappear.

"There are pretty complex technical challenges in how we do this. We have got the broad legislation, but now we have to have a series of dialogues about how we achieve it. We also need to finance it."

Publishers are also backing the library's case. Graham Taylor, director of academic publishing at the Publishers Association, said: "The British Library is in pole position to be the repository of first choice for digital material in perpetuity, as it has been for print material."

Historians, too, are keen to ensure non-print publications are not lost for ever. Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Cambridge University, said: "It is important to make sure that this material is preserved. As this is often the way information is disseminated now, it all helps to build up a picture of society for future generations."

The university is working on its own electronic project, a digitised Greek lexicon.

Ms Brindley said: "The £12m is focused on the matter of setting up a robust infrastructure and employing the right people."

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, which is responsible for the library's budget, said there were many demands on its resources and it had a real-term budget increase of 2.3 per cent. "What we're doing over the next few months is talking about how that is divided between 70 or so public bodies. The British library will be considered ... and we will make an announcement in October."