When you make digital archives in the wrong way...


Sooner or later they rot. But only in that case.

(this is a translated summary of the much longer article “Obsolete Digital Technology puts 150 years of history in jeopardy”)

The historical archive of a major italian newspaper, “La Stampa” of Turin, will become invisible from the web, at least for a while. Because to see it, you would need the Flash browser plugins, that will stop working at the end of 2020. At time of writing, a solution is still missing.

What you want to know (because it may happen to ANY archive near you)

When you make digital archives in the wrong way... /img/la-stampa-archive.jpg
Italy declares war on Austria. Front page of La Stampa, May 24st, 1915
  • The archive contains over 12 million articles and 1,761,000 pages published starting from February 9, 1867: an extraordinary source of information for historians, journalists and citizens who can browse, search and cite it for free.
  • Flash was developed more than 20 years ago for “building graphically effective multimedia presentations”, but always had non-negligible security problems, plus excessive battery drain on mobile devices. Which is one of the reason why iOS devices have never supported it.
  • The announcement that Flash would “die” at the end of 2020 was given in 2017. The La Stampa Archive was never upgraded in this period, because it was ” not clear who, how and with what money should take care of the problem”. The Committee responsible for maintaining the Archive went online in 2008, but it does not exists anymore. It disbanded in 2010.
  • The Committee included the La Stampa publisher, the Piedmont Region (where Turin is), a bank (Compagnia di San Paolo) and a foundation (CRT).
  • From 2010 to 2020, the “bare ownership” of the Archive, and the responsibility to maintain it, have been passed around assorted mixes of public and private organizations, with very little happening in practice.
  • The result is that today, in late November 2020, “who should or can deal with the future of the historical archive is not clear”.

The take-home lesson is…

that problems that seem technological very often are, in fact, technological. They are a mix of bureaucratic incompetence, and ignorance. A digital archive planned, done and regularly updated in the right way has many more probabilities to remain available and widely usable for centuries than one made of paper.

Update mid-December 2020: it seems that a solution to make the archives browseable online in mid-February 2021 has been found.

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