Britannica blog’s posting on The Problem of Data Storage points to how complicated archiving and retrieving things in the digital age has become. Before it was enough to preserve tablets or paper — now this is greatly complicated by the various digital formats that house our data and how the formats themselves are subject to disuse (in many cases making the enclosed data unavailable as well). PDF is a glimmer of hope; we shall see how it holds up to the test of time.
As anyone who has tried to migrate data from an ancient floppy can tell you, retrieving that information, though only 25 years old, is no easy task. (The floppy disk itself is a nearly extinct medium, for that matter.) The mere difficulty of retrieving old data provides the rationale for Adobe’s now-standard PDF (portable document format), documents that can be read and printed across any operating system. What is more, Adobe developers maintain, “ten years from now, and into the future, users will still be able to view the file exactly as it was created”—meaning that fonts, layout, and illustrations are locked into the document and cannot easily be changed, unlike documents created with standard word processing software. (For more, see Adobe’s white paper “PDF as a Standard for Archiving.”)
On a larger scale this reminds me of the excellent book The Clock Of The Long Now by Steward Brand, that covers designing (and documenting) a clock that works on a massive scale and is intended to run for thousands of years.