Unless you are quite young, or avoided using computers until recently, you know how much the technology has changed in just a few decades. I never used a computer until the mid-80’s, and when I took my first computer classes we kept our files on 5¼” floppy diskettes. You’d be hard pressed to find a computer today that could read one of those. Even the smaller 3½” diskettes (still called “floppy” to distinguish them from hard drives, although their plastic cases were rigid) that replaced them are obsolete now.
We still have some old 3½” diskettes, but only one of the computers on our home network has the floppy drive to read them. (An even older computer has the drive, but no way to transfer the data to our newer computers.) Any of them can read the dozens (hundreds?) of CDs, even the newest computer with its DVD drive. But it’s not hard to imagine a time not so far in the future that today’s CDs would be as hard to read as the old floppy diskettes are today. (I’ve seen the even older 8″ floppies, but never worked on a computer that could read one.)
In the business world, where data has generally been backed up on magnetic tape, a similar process has taken place. I worked with at least three different tape cartridge formats during the seventeen years I was responsible for system backup, and I have seen others. Data that was expected to be needed into the future was kept online, or converted to a newer format, but much archived data was left on the older, now unreadable cartridges.
Corporate IT departments have long been aware of this issue and make arrangements accordingly. A product liability suit may require being able to produce details on some long-ago transaction. Good customer service requires having good records on even very old products, for the purpose of repair and parts replacement. Keeping the needed data available is not cheap, but it needs to be done. And like all their other expenses, they plan for it in their budget, and pass the cost along to their customers.
I never thought about it until today, but non-profits probably are less likely to be so thorough. Chronically faced with needs greater than the donations coming in, the highest priority will generally be meeting current needs, rather than allowing for some hypothetical need to retrieve data from long-completed projects.
When the product itself is information, I would have thought that the situation would be different. But today I interviewed a woman from church about the volunteer work she is learning to do for Wycliffe Associates, so I can write an article for the church newsletter. (It’s not the typical newsletter, giving news of coming events – that is now distributed via email. This one is produced quarterly, and highlights various people and ministries in the church.)
She will be transcribing passages of Scripture using format markers that identify each element of a printed page – book, chapter, and verse divisions, section headings, cross references, paragraph starts, indented text (such as poetry), and more. I was initially puzzled by the need for this, since the source material she receives will already be formatted. But a printed page can be produced in many ways – a word processor (which may be any one of several competing software brands), a graphic image of the page, or a pdf file. It may even have been typed on a typewriter, in which case it exists only on that piece of paper.
If you want to print the Bible, you don’t want to have Genesis in WordPerfect (we’ll assume it was done a while ago), Exodus in Microsoft Word, Numbers in an old unsupported version of Microsoft Word, Leviticus in plain text, Deuteronomy in a pdf, and so on. Unlike a big corporation, missions agencies can’t make sure their people in the field all have the latest version of one approved brand of software (assuming they do have computers). And it’s hardly the best use of their time to have to concern themselves with page layout, when their primary objective is translating the text of Scripture.
In addition, there are apparently many Bible translations that are now out of print, and whatever source was using to make the print run is now gone. I guess I would have thought that some kind of digital copy would have been maintained, but that has not always been the case. Perhaps some have been saved on media that are now obsolete, or rendered unreadable due to degradation of the physical media.
I’ve no idea whether my friend is likely to be transcribing Scripture newly translated by linguists in the field, or making some of those old translations ready for re-printing. Perhaps some of each. But I am glad that Wycliffe Associates is working on preserving the Bible in a format that will be available to future generations. I’ve long thought that if I didn’t need to work for a living, I would like to do some kind of behind-the-scenes work for a non-profit, preferably some kind of computer work. I’ve no idea how many years it will be before I can take an active part in this effort, but I’m happy to be able to write about my friend who can do it now.