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Letter to US News & World Report (Innaccurate Reporting on Longevity)

February 19, 1998

Letters to the Editor
U.S. News and World Report
2400 N Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20037-1177

Laura Tangley
U.S. News and World Report
2400 N Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20037-1177

Deanna Marcum, President
Council on Library and Information Resources
1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036-2188

Randy Allen
The Communications Office, Inc.
108 East Del Ray
Alexandria, Virginia 22301-1324

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I was extremely agitated when I read the article entitled "Whoops, there goes another CD-ROM" in the February 16, 1998 issue of U.S. News and World Report. Statements are made in this article and attributed to the National Media Laboratory that are grossly inaccurate. A chart is also shown that is a serious misrepresentation of NML research findings. This article adversely affects the credibility of the National Media Laboratory (NML), the Council on Library and Information Resource (CLIR), and U.S. News and World Report (USN&WR).

The article makes the statement that "tests by the National Media Lab show that top-quality VHS tapes stored at room temperature preerve data dependably for just a decade." This statement is completely false. The statement that "average quality CD-ROMs become unreliable . . . after 5 years" is absurd. NML publications assert significantly higher life expectancy values for magnetic tape and CD-ROM that those claimed in the UNS&WR article

The U.S. News and World Report chart, an interpretation of an NML chart, is erroneous and misleading. Specifically,

  • The original NML chart, part of a series of charts, was designed to be used in conjunction with government disposition schedules -- storage media are judged for their suitability for storage for discrete periods of time. The USN&WR chart shows media lifetimes on a continuum. The NML chart shows that best quality CD-ROM media would be suitable for storing information for 50 years, but not for 100 years. Correctly read, this indicates that the life expectancy of this media is between 50 and 100 years. The USN&WR chart misrepresents this information and displays a maximum life expectancy of 50 years for CD-ROM.
  • Judging whether a class of data storage media is suitable for a specific data retention schedule is different than assigning a life expectancy value for the same class of products. On the NML chart, for some storage times, all major vendors are considered acceptable for reliably storing information, using the life expectancy of the lowest quality media as the criteria for this group. For longer storage times, only better than average media is considered acceptable, using the average life expectancy as the criteria for this group. The USN&WR chart unjustly misrepresents information relating to the poorest quality media as indicative of "All major brands."
  • The NML chart addresses the life expectancy of digital magnetic tape formats exclusively. The USN&WR chart does not state whether the information shown is for analog or digital formats, but the implication is that they are analog formats. "VHS tape" implies it is the analog format widely used in the home. Information on the NML chart for "Data VHS" tape was specifically for Metrum (Honeywell) digital data recorders which use consumer grade VHS tape. Digitally recorded tapes are much less forgiving of defects and have lower life expectancies than analog tapes. Life expectancy information on the NML chart is not relevant for analog formats.
  • The USN&WR chart is labeled as diplaying "the life expectancy of various media used to store government documents and other information . . .." The ridiculously low numbers on the USN&WR chart combined with this statement leave the reader with the impression that U.S. government documents are not being properly stored and important information is at risk of being lost. And the National Media Lab is credited as the source of this information. The NML chart discusses the longevity of various media types without specific reference to any agency, corporation, or profession.
  • The USN&WR chart displays media types, such as "half-inch reel-to-reel tape," that are not part of the NML chart.

The information that was misused for this article was obtained from the NML web site (http://www.nml.org). NML is principally tasked to support the U.S. government by providing the best commercial solutions available for the tasks of collecting, exploiting, disseminating and archiving data. However, information that benefits the government can also benefit industry and educational instutions. For this reason, NML publications and other resources are freely distributed via the NML web site.

NML web site usage rights state that when NML resources are used:

  • NML must be informed of each instance.
  • No changes shall be made to the content or display of the original file.

When informed that USN&WR would be publishing an article using NML resources, one week before going to press, NML made some simple requests:

  • That the NML life expectancy chart be used in its entirety without alteration.
  • If modifications were to be made, that NML could not be credited as the source of the information. NML indicated that it was easy for a non-technical person to misinterpret the life expectancy information.

The above requests were not honored and USN&WR went to press with a life expectancy chart that is a gross misinterpretation of NML's original. U.S. News and World Report is responsible for distributing misleading information regarding the longevity of information storage media. The information that USN&WR printed did not come from the National Media Lab, and we are offended that we are attributed as the source. This has created an embarrassing situation and a loss of credibility for the NML. U.S. News and World Report owes its readers and the National Media Laboratory a sincere apology.

Sincerely,

Dr. John Van Bogart
Data Preservation Scientist
National Media Laboratory

Enclosure: NML's "Life Expectancy of Various Information Storage Media: For Storage at 20 C adn 40% RH" chart