Democrat and ChronicleTuesday, April 26, 2011

Firm's silicon wafers help preserve Greece's historical records

GREECE-A locally owned company-built from work done at Rochester Institute of Technology-will help the town of Greece preserve its history.

Using silicon wafers, NanoArk Corp. of Perinton can preserve important records and documents in a format that can always be read and will last at least 500 years.
Just as film went digital and revolutionized the way photography works, NanoArk president and CEO P.R. Mukund said he sees "a future where as far as long-term preservation is concerned, our technology will innovatively replace film. This will be another revolution that started in Rochester, New York."

It's a revolution that's all about safekeeping.

"This is really for disaster planning," said Pattie Anthony, Greece's town clerk. She's In charge of maintaining more than a half-million maps, minutes, agendas, Permits and other records entrusted to the town. Paper copies-and electronic version scanned to computer will still be kept, but all those documents will be backed up on NanoArk's waferfiche product, which is fireproof and impervious to water.

Anthony said that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the massive 2005 storm that devastated southern communities in and around New Orleans, clerks and others who take care of important historical documents were reawakened to the limitations of paper and even microfilm.

"In Katrina, there were so may communities that had all of their records destroyed, even the maps and plans for their infrastructure," she said. "People couldn't find deeds for their properties, records of marriage licenses, anything."

David W. Carmichael, director of the Georgia Archives and President of the Council of State Archivists, toured hurricane-affected areas in 2005 to view the disaster's impact on public buildings. Millions of documents-birth and death records, property records, criminal records and historical maps, photographs, books and the like-were lost forever to flood, fire and mold.

He reported this back to organization: "Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Katrina is this: The only guarantee against catastrophic loss is duplication," he said. "Government agencies must review their records systematically, identify the ones that are vital to protect their citizens, and then duplicate them. Anything less is a violation of the public trust."


Mukund says the company and the Waferfiche product were sparked by a project he and others undertook earlier this decade to preserve the original 13th-century writings of the founder of the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy.

And then their idea to imprint tiny images on silicon wafers was spurred by NASA's Apollo 12 mission, he said.

"NASA wanted to leave a time capsule on the moon with messages of peace from many heads of nations," he said "They collected 80 messages of peace, and you can't take a whole stack of paper to the moon, so NASA contracted for the best solution that would be likely to withstand environmental hazards both known and unknown… they ended up putting it on a silicon wafer."

Each of NanoArk's wafers holds up to 2,000 tiny images, reducing what could be a more than 8-inch stack of papers to a single unit slightly larger than a CD. The image-etched wafers are sealed inside an impervious plastic case and, unlike microfiche, don't need costly climate-controlled storage to survive.

"And the beauty of it is that you could store it underwater, or throw it in a fire, and it will not be harmed," said Mukund.

And unlike computerized storage methods, such as floppy discs or even compact discs, there's no danger that the technology needed to read the wafers will become obsolete or change so much over the product's lifespan that it can never be read.

"The only things you need to look at the images are illumination and magnification," said Mukund. "All you need is light and a lens."

Until last year, NanoArk was located in RIT's High Technology Incubator just off campus in Henrietta. The company moved to Perinton last year and has branched out to offer other archiving products such as digitizing images and document management

Mukund said the company's sales volume is expected to exceed $1 million this year, and the company employs six people.


Although the town of Greece was officially founded in 1822 some of the records entrusted to Anthony in her capacity as town clerk predate that by dozens of years. There are well more than 500,000 individual records at Town Hall, in file cabinets and cardboard boxes, on microfiche and in computer databases.

Some are still in their original form, such as the town's Marriage Record of 1908. The book's yellowed pages are crumbling at the edges, its binding broken and the spidery hand-written names of the brides and grooms fading away.

"We have other vital records dating back to the 1780s and early 1800s," said Anthony. "Those haven't been converted yet, but I'd love to be able to bring them in to this system, too."

The Waferfiche records will be stored off-site, and will be available in the event of catastrophe at Town Hall, said Anthony. The town also will continue to utilize its current Laserfiche documents management system provided by another local company, General Code, located in Gates. All town documents generated now are automatically added to the Laserfiche software system and preserved.

NanoArk will be able to tap into the town's existing system, capture the images stored there and etch them onto the silicon wafers. Anthony said the contract for this work is about $13,000.

Work is also ongoing in all town departments to get past year and historical documents scanned into the Laserfiche system so they can also be archived to Waferfiche.

For Anthony, and for historians, the advantage of using a product that can withstand the ravages of time, temperature and decay is clear.

"Once a generation is gone, so is its collective memory," said Bill Sauers, president of the Greece Historical Society.

"We need to save our records for history because how can we appreciate our progress if we don't have access to our records of the past?"