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The Analogue Repository

A story from the Digital Preservation Multiverse| ·1671 words
Digital Preservation
Andy Jackson
Andy Jackson
Fighting entropy since 1993

This is a very silly thing I wrote many years ago. A fever dream from an alternate reality.

It’s been floating in my notes for a while, but doesn’t really fit anywhere, so I’m publishing it as a blog.

Any resemblance to actual archival systems, active or decommissioned, is entirely mostly coincidental.

“Thank you, it’s been really interesting to see what you do here.”

“No problem, no problem at all. There’s just one more thing I’d like you to see. Our Trusted Analogue Repository.”

“Oh, excellent! Lead on!”

“Of course, I can’t call it Trusted just yet. Not officially. The auditors were only here last month.”

My host walked ahead, stopping at a small control panel embedded in the wall next to a featureless metallic door.

“Just a minute, it takes a while to log into the door security system.”

The whole wall gleamed. The backlit buttons shone. The contrast with the rather shabby state of the surrounding buildings was stark, but then everyone is investing in analogue repositories these days.

At last, the door slides aside, slowly and smoothly, making a faint ‘aaah’ sound. As we walk in, automated lights start to flick on around us. Slowly at first, then cascading outward until the whole space is lit.


It is vast. Shining shelve after shining shelf, stretching upwards and ahead, almost to a vanishing point. But…

"…wonderful space. But…"


"…er, where are the books?"

“Oh, we’re currently in the process of shelving them. Come and see.”

As we walk towards to nearest corner of the room, the handful of filled shelves come into view.

“Here’s what we’ve shelved so far.”

“Ah, right, so plenty of room to grow?”

“Well, not as much as we’d like. Most of the space is allocated, we just haven’t filled the shelves yet.”

I peer at the shelves.

“So the books are stored in boxes?”

“One book per box, yes. We don’t call them ‘boxes’. They’re Archival Information Packages.”

“Ah. May I?”, I say, reaching towards one of the boxes.

“Sure, take a look. Here’s the access station.”

I take down the box, and place it on table that, like the shelves themselves, appear to be designed to be used with these boxes. Each one is square, about twelve inches in width and depth, and about 18 inches high. I stare at it, trying to work out how to open it.

“The clasp is on the base. We don’t want them opening accidentally!”

I reach under the box and find a recessed button. I press it, and as I retrieve my hand, the box opens itself outwards, like a flower. In the middle, raised up, sits the book. It looks like a novel, but I don’t recognise it.

“What are all these pockets for?” I ask, pointing to the deep flaps and slots lining the ‘petals’ of the open box.

“Well, we get a lot of different books here. Not just different sizes, different genres, publishers, all sorts. We need to make sure we can preserve them, so we make notes about each book and put them in the pockets.”

“What kind of notes?”

“Oh, just useful bits of information, like the publisher, year of publication, author, paper and ink colours, that kind of thing. Any properties of the book that might be significant in the future.”

“Couldn’t you just open the book and get the information from there?”

“Well, yes, but these little notes are so handy.”

I slide one out. The card is reassuringly heavy, the finish fine, the dark ink stamped deep and clear. Underneath it there’s a couple of framed plastic sheets, with fine markings I can’t quite make out.

“What are these?”

“Ah that’s a copy of the text of the book. That way, if we have to repair the book, we know what the text was.”

“The text? From the book?”

“Yes, you just pop in under here and you can read it.”

A vertical column is extended up, and out of the table, revealing itself to be something like a microfiche station.

“Ah, like microfiche! Nice.”

My host seems a little put out by this comparison.

“Well, similar yes. But this is much more modern. Very high resolution. It’s called FutureProofText. And it will last a thousand years!”

“It will?”

“Yes, the vendor assures it that it will. Admittedly, it’s a proprietary standard right now, but we’re working with the supplier to make them an ISO standard. Same with the boxes.”

“And these?”, I ask, pointing at the larger spaces that make up the body of the raised plinth the novel is lying on.

“Ah, that’s the Representation Information stack. Like I said, some of these books are in other languages. Some of them make a lot of references to other books. So we put those books together. Each package has to be self-describing, you see, so we sit each book on top of the information you need to understand the book. Nice and simple.”

A set of shelves is built into each package, under each book. Layered information stacked like geological strata. As with the room itself, I can’t help but be impressed by sheer ambition and the technology involved. My host clearly takes some pleasure from that.

“That sounds like a lot of work.”

“Oh yes. Some of the packages are rather… tall. We had to re-design our shelving.”

“Are most of the boxe… packages as, er, empty, as this one?”

Judging by the reaction, this question seems to hit a nerve.

“Well, as you said, it’s a lot of work, so we’re tackling the easiest ones first. The books in plain English, that don’t really need much explanation. We just pop an English dictionary in the Rep Info stack, fill out the basic notes and make the FPT.”

“The FPT?”

“Sorry, the FutureProofText. The… the ‘microfiche’.”

“Ah, right. So all these boxes are mostly empty?”


My questions are being met with increasing irritation, but my curiosity gets the better of me one more time.

“But aren’t some of your most valuable books going to be the trickier ones? Aren’t you in danger of prioritising things that are of low value, and already at low risk?”

“We’re doing our best! You’re very lucky to be able to see this, you know. We don’t let many people in here, to avoid damaging the books.”

From what I’ve seen, I don’t understand how anyone gets to read the books. But I think I should stop asking difficult questions.

“Well, it really is impressive. The effort you’re willing to go to to preserve these books. Thank you. It’s been very… informative.”

“You’re welcome.”, spoken gladly, but with the thinnest of smiles. “Let’s get you back to the public area.”

We walk over to a door not far from the part-filled shelves. This time there is a pair of keypads, one one each side of the door.

“When I say so, press the red one.”

“No, sorry, the small red one…. Right…. Now.”

The doors ease apart.

“Can’t be too careful.”

I think my host want this to be over as much as I do, and I’m glad we seem to be taking a short-cut. We go down a staircase into an older part of an adjoining building. A couple of the fluorescent light tubes flicker above our heads as we make our way along a long corridor, lined with doorless openings into dimly-lit rooms. The floor appears to be slightly wet. The air is damp, and the musty smell is oddly familiar. It takes me a moment to place it.

I stop and peer into one of the side rooms. There are about ten pallets of books, stacked high, and half-wrapped in thick, translucent plastic. Water drips from the ceiling as I walk inside. There’s just enough space to walk around the edge of the room. While attempting to avoid touching the walls, I walk round and reach under the torn plastic, and bring out a book. The cover is obscured by a sticky note that says “RI too deep - stack overflow”.

My host, clearly exasperated but trying to hide it, walks in briskly. I decide to act like I think this is part of the tour.

“Is this part of the repository?”

“Oh no. No. This is the backlog. Well, the main backlog. We’ve got to keep the things somewhere while we process them. It’s a lot of work!”

“Why is the wrapping broken? Won’t the books get wet?”

To my surprise, this question does not appear to further upset my host. The answer is quick and clear, and oozes the confident assurance of a practised response.

“We need to open them up to do the prioritisation. We’re very careful. We monitor the moisture levels every day, and any major change in circumstances would raise an alert immediately.”

“Ah, right. Thank you.”

We walk on, passing room after room. Further corridors stretch away to the sides – the lighting is poor, and it’s hard to see how far they reach. But there must be hundreds of thousands of books here.

My host seems to relax a little.

“Sorry for taking you on a short-cut, but we’re running out of time.”

“No problem. It’s still very interesting!”

“It’s not usually this damp. But the furnace isn’t working right now.”

“The furnace?”

“Yes. We heat the main building from here, but what with the damp, we tend to leave the furnace open so it helps keep things dry.”

“An open furnace? Near the books?”

“Oh it’s fine. We’re very careful. Never had a problem, in nearly ten years. No significant losses.”

Finally we reach another staircase, head upwards and find ourselves back at the main reception.

“Well, I hope you enjoyed seeing our Trusted Analogue Repository. We’re hoping to get our official certification through soon!”

“Did the they get the same tour as today?”

“Yes. Well, pretty much. Different exit routes, shall we say. I took them the long way round. No sense confusing the issue.”