New Uses for Old Technology at the Arctic World Archive

In this era of rapid technological change, it is easy to fall into the mindset that the “big new thing” is always an improvement on the technology that came before it. Certainly this is often true, and here in the Scholarly Commons we are always seeking innovative new tools to help you out with your research. However, every now and then it’s nice to just slow down and take the time to appreciate the strengths and benefits of older technology that has largely fallen out of use.

A photo of the arctic

There is perhaps no better example of this than the Arctic World Archive, a facility on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Opened in 2017, the Arctic World Archive seeks to preserve the world’s most important cultural, political, and literary works in a way that will ensure that no manner of catastrophe, man-made or otherwise, could destroy them.

If this is all sounding familiar to you, that’s because you’ve probably heard of the Arctic World Archive’s older sibling, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Global Seed Vault, which is much better known and older than the Arctic World Archive, is an archive seeds from around the world, meant to ensure that humanity would be able to continue growing crops and making food in the event of a catastrophe that wipes out plant life.

Indeed, the two archives have a lot in common. The World Archive is housed deep within a mountain in an abandoned coal mine that once served as the location of the seed vault, and was founded to be for cultural heritage what the seed vault is for crops. But the Arctic World Archive has made truly innovative use of old technology that makes it a truly impressive site in its own right.

A photo of the arctic

Perhaps the coolest (pun intended) aspect of the Arctic World Archive is the fact that it does not require electricity to operate. It’s extreme northern location (it is near the northernmost town of at least 1,000 people in the world) means that the temperature inside the facility is naturally very cold year-round. As any archivist or rare book librarian who brings a fleece jacket to work in the summer will happily tell you, colder temperatures are ideal for preserving documents, and the ability to store items in a very cold climate without the use of electricity makes the World Archive perfect for sustainable, long-term storage.

But that’s not all: in a real blast from the past, all information stored in this facility is kept on microfilm. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “it’s the 21st century, grandpa! No one uses microfilm anymore!”

It’s true that microfilm is used by a very small minority of people nowadays, but nevertheless it offers distinct advantages that newer digital media just can’t compete with. For example, microfilm is rated to last for at least 500 years without corruption, whereas digital files may not last anywhere near that long. Beyond that, the film format means that the archive is totally independent from the internet, and will outlast any major catastrophe that disrupts part or all of our society’s web capabilities.

A photo of a seal

The Archive is still growing, but it is already home to film versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and an assortment of government documents from many countries including Norway, Brazil, and the United States.

As it continues to grow, its importance as a place of safekeeping for the world’s cultural heritage will hopefully serve as a reminder that sometimes, older technology has upsides that new tech just can’t compete with.

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