Preserved: how long can something last?

Preserved: how long can something last?

I wandered through the Brotherhood of St Laurence idly observing what was once precious. The public goes out the front door with the goods that come in the back. The intestinal metaphor is unflattering to the customers.

Looking down into a metal basket of recent arrivals, I see an oddity. There among books read and unread is, not a bundle, but a single almost unblemished copy of Woman’s Day. It is dated 26 June 1961.

When did the apostrophe in the title disappear? I claim it and take it home for further rumination. Every item in an op-shop has a backstory. Why was this magazine dedicatedly preserved for 60 years?

Why this magazine?

A common back-story of the op-shop is that someone has died. For a magazine that is 60 years old, it may have been grandma. Her children’s children, faced with the task of assigning importance, have taken what they wanted but this magazine has not been preserved as ‘important to her’.

Is she perhaps in it?

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Image: R Symons

What is of value and how is it preserved?

We no longer keep bullion in a cellar. Coins of silver and copper are mere tokens of value. With paper money, we acceded to the hypothetical idea of ‘value’ long ago.

King Charles III may not appear on our plastic banknotes but he’ll be on our coins. They last for thousands of years.

If you keep a diary, a journal or simply jot your musings and store it ‘in the cloud’ then stop reading now. Actor Bruce Willis notably asked the question: Can my children inherit the iTunes songs that I bought?

No they can’t. What does own mean? 

Every item in an op-shop has a backstory. Why was this magazine dedicatedly preserved for 60 years?

Besides, a hard drive is fraught with uncertainty. A spinning, magnetized disc will unquestionably fail. A solid state drive is safer but for how long? 

When CDs first appeared I remember wondering the same thing. It takes a hundred years to find out if something lasts a century. The manufacturer, while better informed than you or I, doesn’t really know.

I am indebted to “Margaret”, a blogger on a multimedia forum.

CDs: golden CDs burned in 1997 – 1999 at 1x speed are still readable. CDs burned at high speed are having issues.

DVDs: bought DVDs have no issues. DVDs burned at low speed are readable. The ones burned at high speed are no longer readable or having a lot of issues. I had to backup all the good ones and dump all the others. 

While somebody on a website does not conform to conventional academic rigour, nevertheless this person is documenting their empirical experience and has nothing to gain from promoting misinformation.

‘Golden’ CDs can indeed be gold, a noble metal universally prized for its resistance to corrosion, It doesn’t rust. Yes, the Book of Mormon was originally received on tablets of gold with the knowledge that it would last. Sadly, the tablets were misplaced. ‘Silver’ CDs are largely aluminium surfaces and more susceptible to deterioration.

CDs and DVDs pit the metal layer with dots and dashes, zeros and ones, and then lay a transparent blanket, a plastic window, on top.

The metal may last but what if I scratch the plastic surface? You know the answer: the signal degrades.

I once took a collection of photographs at Machu Picchu with a view to photo-stitching them into a very large and detailed panorama. In the back streets of Fitzroy, the Haight Ashbury of Australia, a specialty printer advised that the colour of inkjet printing would fade more quickly than photographic printing.

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Image: R Symons

In galleries and museums around the world there is a concerted effort to isolate the precious trove. The Egyptian mummies in the British Museum are in hermetically sealed cabinets protected from light and atmosphere. The Mona Lisa is dimly lit and protected from the exhalations of the queueing tourists.

The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s labour of devotion, is openly on display and therefore needs a touch-up from time to time.

Attribution for any oil painting more than 100 years old should be …et al , the Conservators. Blue Poles was painted by Jackson Pollock in acrylic paint. It may well be dust at the bottom of the frame a century from now.

The Titanic exhibition, one of several circulating the world, contains objects retrieved from the wreck after a century in the deep, dark, dismal depths of the Atlantic. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the self-evident. The wooden doors have not lasted well, the metals are rusted and the leather and linen are shredding. The only thing that is untarnished is a collection of porcelain fashionably styled into egg cups and spoons.

It would be possible to keep your diary in porcelain, perhaps in the glaze, but it would take up a lot of space and be susceptible to droppages.

In galleries and museums around the world there is a concerted effort to isolate the precious trove.

The simplest of question of all: In what form shall I store my diary?

With letters and numbers alone, a .txt file of 5 kilobyte becomes a .doc file of 20kb and a docx file of 500kb. Will your grandchildren really care about the font you use? Will they even be able to read something in an archaic format on an archaic storage device? 

In the end, if you want it to be preserved, you will need generations of conservators to continually re-address the problem with pen, paper and ink.

Remember when diaries were written on paper?

A thousand years ago, before printing reached Europe, they just concentrated on one book and made multiple copies by hand, one at a time. The medium could be parchment made from a layer of animal skin and a quill dipped in ink. Our old friend gold was often added for the illuminations, the graphic illustrations.

It turns out that paper, ascribed to Cai Lun, a 2nd-century Han court eunuch, is a material made of matted and pressed vegetable fibres. It has lasted quite well.

The Egyptians had papyrus ( hence the name paper) some thousands of years before that. Papyrus was good as long as you didn’t read it too often.

I’m using a pencil and paper right now.

Austerity and posterity are fellow travellers.

Let me take you back to where we started, the back door of the op shop, the disposal depot.

With the Woman’s Day objet trouvé I speculated a narrative of explanation. Grandma died and her descendants threw out her stuff.

At the same back door, a week ago an elderly (my age) woman was beseeching the workers to retrieve grandma’s prized crockery. She showed a picture of a gold edged, patterned and complete set, the kind of crockery barely used except for the Best Occasions.

“My sister disposed of it yesterday, in the cleanup after our mum died. She said she was being efficient!”

She found it.

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