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'Digital black hole' threatens your documents

An EU project aims to stave off the loss of digital data as file formats become obsolete and inaccessible.

The European Union is funding a project involving national libraries and digital preservation groups aimed at fighting off a looming "digital black hole."

The black hole in question is the potential future loss of data as file formats become obsolete and inaccessible.

The Planets consortium will develop a "sustainable framework" to maintain access to digital content after its original storage format has disappeared. ("Planets" is short for "preservation and long-term access project through networked services.)

It is estimated that 5 billion documents are produced every year within the EU, of which 2 percent--100 million--are seen as worth archiving. Two million of these documents are on formats at risk from disappearing into the digital black hole.

The consortium includes national libraries, archives, research institutes and technology specialists across Europe. The organizations taking part include the British Library; Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England; IBM Netherlands; the Austrian National Library; the Swiss Federal Archives; and Freiburg and Cologne universities in Germany.

The EU's Information Society Technologies R&D program is providing 8.6 million euros ($11.3 million) of the 14 million euros ($18.5 million) required to fund the project.

Adam Farquhar, head of e-architecture at the British Library, said that as computer hardware and software become obsolete, digital information reliant on this technology becomes increasingly hard to find, view, search and reuse.

"There is a growing consensus on the need to act now to avoid a gaping hole in our cultural and scientific record," he said.

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, said European libraries and archives are uniquely positioned to lead this digital-preservation initiative, as they have the legal responsibility and the legislative framework to safeguard digital information.

Tim Ferguson of reported from London.