Examples of Archival Neglect Throughout History and Lessons in Disaster Recovery

Examples of Archival Neglect Throughout History and Lessons in Disaster Recovery

October 2

There haven’t always been computers, cloud platforms, and sophisticated storage devices, but information and archiving goes back to the days of the “tabularia” used in Ancient China, Rome, and Greece. Data management blunders and misfortunes can be traced back pretty far as well. These examples of mass data loss are the collective poster child of archival neglect.

Missing Pieces of the COINTELPRO Puzzle

Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast in 2012. The FBI itself was one of the victims, particularly its Archives and Records Center in Alexandria, Virginia. That’s where the agency lost as much as one fifth of the file on the controversial COINTELPRO initiative to flooding. Operating between 1956 and 1971, COINTELPRO was a program that saw the FBI target a number of political and social groups through both legal and illegal means. Some of its targets included civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, and white supremacist groups the likes of the Klu Klux Klan.

With the loss of that data comes the loss of important history, including thousands of pages on civil rights issues from the 1940s, the Nation of Islam, and the National Negro Labor Council, a once prominent civil rights group that was forced out of existence for acts deemed as Un-American and promoting communism. Years of history drowned in a watery grave, leaving the curious to ponder why the 62,000-plus page file hadn’t been transferred to the publicly accessible National Archive – or why better efforts weren’t made by the FBI to protect it.

A Country Without Names

What’s discouraging about the COINTELPRO file mishap is that the FBI has far too many resources to succumb to poor record management. Things were a bit different in the early twentieth century. In 1921, a fire in the basement of the Commerce Department Building destroyed the census data for the year 1890. An estimated 99 percent of the records were lost, with only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 names being recovered. Whether this constitutes neglect or bad luck is debatable, but it was significant enough to fuel the establishment of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in 1934.

Someone Messed Up, Mate! 

A more recent example points back to the National Archives – but this time, it’s the repository maintained by the Ministry of Justice in the UK. Documents regarding historic British figures such as Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and Winston Churchill were among the records reported missing from the official UK archive. Unlike our first two examples, this archive wasn’t compromised by what we’d call disasters – it looks to have been the result of sheer incompetence at the administrative level. When reported in 2011, less than half of the missing data had been recovered, with no explanation given for the loss.

Timeless Data Archiving Lessons

As it relates to the examples above, archival neglect made tracking certain parts of history very difficult for researchers. The repercussions may be far more severe for a service provider or commercial company that handles archives chock full of employee records, customer information, and financial data. If anything, we can take valuable lessons from those archive disasters that wiped out years of world history as well as those limited by technology.

Upgrade Storage Formats with the Times

Photo Credit: Tom Stohlman via Flickr

Photo Credit: Tom Stohlman via Flickr

Now residing in the British Museum, the contents of the Rosetta Stone date back to the Ptolemaic Age around 196 BC. Written on the stone is a description of the agreement made between the Pharaoh and priests in Ancient Egypt. Because the contents were written in Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyph scripts, the message wasn’t deciphered until roughly 23 years after its discovery in 1799.

The lesson to take from the Rosetta Stone discovery is simple – just because the data is physically accessible doesn’t mean it’s readable. Over the years, storage media has evolved from stone to paper to floppy disks to flash drives. Continually upgrade your storage media to new formats to ensure readability and usability over time.

Generate Multiple Backups

Some of the documents reported missing from the UK National Archives were one of a kind copies. A sound disaster recovery not only consists of making backups, but several backups. Creating multiple copies of your data protects you from hardware failure and file corruption as well as human errors such as accidental deletion and “I don’t know what happened”.

Spread the Wealth 

The Library of Alexandria was destroyed by fire in 391 AD. Ravaged by the flames were several books and some 40,000 scrolls containing a wealth of knowledge from ancient cultures of the past. While the significance of the collection actually lost to fire has been questioned, what can’t be debated is the fact that an institution that could have been a valuable source of information today no longer exists.

The destruction of the ancient library highlights the importance of devising a distributed disaster recovery strategy. What I mean by that is creating multiple backups and keeping copies in off-site storage facilities, the cloud, and other destinations beyond your local environment. The distributed approach protects your data from fire, flood, theft, and other disasters that may strike onsite.

Sure Up Storage Reliability

One can argue that the FBI’s handing of the COINTELPRO file was anything but responsible. Hurricanes are among the most fierce and unpredictable natural disasters, but precautions could have been taken to ensure the protection of irreplaceable data. Instances of mass data loss can be avoided by isolating historical archives for preservation, regularly checking archives to verify validity, and testing backups to ensure your ability to recover data in the event of a disaster.

With the ever looming threat of sophisticated malware, untimely power outages, and human error, losing data at your primary storage sources is almost inevitable. A well-rounded archiving strategy will guarantee you can bounce back when those losses do occur.

If you’re interested in a flexible, reliable way to backup systems for archive or disaster recovery, learn more about the StorageCraft Recover-Ability Solution.

Top photo credit: Chuck Grimmett via Flickr