Skip to comments.Digital memories won't last forever
Posted on 11/29/2004 8:47:34 AM PST by Dr. Zzyzx
The nation's 115 million home computers are brimming over with personal treasures millions of photographs, music of every genre, college papers, the great American novel and, of course, mountains of e-mail messages.
Yet no one has figured out how to preserve these electronic materials for the next decade, much less for the ages. Like junk e-mail, the problem of digital archiving, which seems straightforward, confounds even the experts.
"To save a digital file for, let's say, a hundred years is going to take a lot of work," said Peter Hite, president of Media Management Services, a consulting firm in Houston. "Whereas to take a traditional photograph and just put it in a shoe box doesn't take any work." Already, half of all photographs are taken by digital cameras, with most of the shots never leaving a personal computer's hard drive.
So dire and complex is the challenge of digital preservation in general that the Library of Congress has spent the past several years forming committees and issuing reports on the state of the nation's preparedness for digital preservation.
Jim Gallagher, director for information technology services at the Library of Congress, said the library, faced with "a deluge of digital information," had embarked on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project, with an eye toward creating uniform standards for preserving digital material so that it can be read in the future regardless of the hardware or software being used. The assumption is that machines and software formats in use now will become obsolete sooner rather than later.
"It is a global problem for the biggest governments and the biggest corporations all the way down to individuals," said Ken Thibodeau, director for the electronic records archives program at the National Archives and Records Administration.
In the meantime, individual PC owners struggle in private. Desk drawers and den closets are filled with obsolete computers, stacks of Zip disks and 3 1/2-inch diskettes, even the larger 5-inch floppy disks from the 1980s. Short of a clear solution, experts recommend that people copy their materials, which were once on vinyl, film and paper, to CDs and other backup formats.
But backup mechanisms can also lose their integrity. Magnetic tape, CDs and hard drives are far from robust. The life span of data on a CD recorded with a CD burner, for instance, could be as little as five years if it is exposed to extremes in humidity or temperature.
And if a CD is scratched, Hite said, it can become unusable. Unlike, say, faded but readable ink on paper, the instant a digital file becomes corrupted, or starts to degrade, it is indecipherable.
"We're accumulating digital information faster than we can handle, and moving into new platforms faster than we can handle," said Jeffrey Rutenbeck, director for the Media Studies Program at the University of Denver.
Professional archivists and librarians have the resources to duplicate materials in other formats and the expertise to retrieve materials trapped in obsolete computers. But consumers are seldom so well equipped. So they are forced to devise their own stop-gap measures, most of them unwieldy, inconvenient and decidedly low-tech.
Philip Cohen, the communications officer at a nonprofit foundation in San Francisco, is what archivists call a classic "migrator." Since he was in elementary school, Cohen, 33, has been using a computer for his school work, and nearly all of his correspondence has been in e-mail since college.
Now Cohen's three home computers are filled with tens of thousands of photos, songs, video clips and correspondence. Over the years, Cohen, who moonlights as a computer fix-it man, has continually transferred important files to ever newer computers and storage formats like CDs and DVDs. "I'll just keep moving forward with the stuff I'm sentimental about," he said.
Yet Cohen said he had noticed that some of his CDs, especially the rewritable variety, are already beginning to degrade. "About a year and a half ago they started to deteriorate and become unreadable," he said.
And of course, migration works only if the data can be found, and with ever more capacious hard drives, even that can be a problem.
"Some people are saying digital data will disappear not by being destroyed but by being lost," Rutenbeck said. "It's one thing to find the photo album of your trip to Hawaii 20 years ago. But what if those photos are all sitting in a subdirectory in your computer?"
For some PC users, old machines have become the equivalent of the bin under the bed. This solution, which experts call the museum approach to archiving, means keeping obsolete equipment around the house.
Simon Yates, an analyst at Forrester Research, for example, keeps his old PC in the back of a closet underneath a box. The machine contains everything in his life from the day he married in 1997 to the day he bought his new computer in 2002. If he wanted to retrieve anything from the old PC, Yates said, it would require a great deal of wiring and rewiring. "I'd have to reconfigure my entire office just to get it to boot up," he said.
Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network, which specializes in long-range planning, says that a decade or two from now, the museum approach might be the most feasible answer. "As long as you keep your data files somewhat readable, you'll be able to go to the equivalent of Kinko's where they'll have every ancient computer available," said Schwartz., whose company has worked with the Library of Congress on its preservation efforts.
"It'll be like Ye Olde Antique Computer Shoppe," Schwartz said. "There's going to be a whole industry of people who will have shops of old machines, like the original Mac Plus." Until that approach becomes commercially viable, though, there is the printout method.
Melanie Ho, 25, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been using computers since elementary school. She creates her own Web sites and spends much of her day online.
Yet she prints important documents and stores a backup set at her parents' house 100 miles away. "As much as a lot of people think print will be dead because of computers," she said, "I actually think there's something about the tangibility of paper that feels more comforting."
Proponents of paper archiving grow especially vocal when it comes to preserving photographs. If stored properly, conventional color photographs printed from negatives can last as long as 75 years without fading. Newer photographic papers can last up to 200 years.
There is no such certainty for digital photos saved on a hard drive. Today's formats are likely to become obsolete, and future software "probably will not recognize some aspects of that format," Thibodeau said. "It may still be a picture, but there might be things in it where, for instance, the colors are different." The experts at the National Archives, like those at the Library of Congress, are working to develop uniformity among digital computer files to eliminate dependence on specific hardware or software.
One format that has uniformity, Thibodeau pointed out, is the Web, where it often makes no difference which browser is being used. Indeed, for many consumers, the Web has become a popular archiving method, especially when it comes to photos. Shutterfly.com and Ofoto.com have hundreds of millions of photographs on their computers. Shutterfly keeps a backup set of each photo sent to the site. The backups are stored somewhere in California "off the fault line," said David Bagshaw, chief executive of Shutterfly.
But suppose a Web-based business like Shutterfly goes out of business? Bagshaw said he preferred to look on the bright side but offered this bit of comfort: "No matter what the business circumstances, we'll always make people's images available to them." Constant mobility can be another issue. Stephen Quinn, who teaches journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., moves frequently because of his work. He prefers to keep the amount of paper in his life to a minimum and rarely makes printouts. Quinn has a box in the bottom drawer of his desk that contains an eclectic set of storage disks dating back to the early 1980s, when he started out on an Amstrad computer. All of Quinn's poetry ("unpublished and unpublishable" he says) and other writings are on those various digital devices, along with his daily diaries.
At some point, he wants to gather the material as a keepsake for his children, but he has no way to read the files he put on the Amstrad disks more than 20 years ago. He has searched unsuccessfully for an Amstrad computer. "I have a drawer filled with disks and no machinery to read it with," Quinn said. That is becoming a basic problem of digital life. Whatever solution people might use, it is sure to be temporary. "We will always be playing catch up," said Rutenbeck, who is working at pruning his own digital past, discarding old hard drives and stacks of old Zip disks. "It feels really good to do," he said, "just like I didn't keep a box of everything I did in first grade."
How hard is it to burn images to a CD for crying out loud?
Oops, don't even know Katie Hafner. Don't know why I had to write her name over and over.
Duh. CD. Good for 100+ years. Non-magnetic.
I used to lug punch cards for my dad when he rented cpu time on the weekends. I was very happy when the 11" floppy's came along. My dad still has a bunch in his cellar, but no machine to use them on.
Sure you do. You've got a big, secret crush on her. Well, it isn't secret any more!
How long to CDs last?
> How hard is it to burn images to a CD for crying out loud?
Not hard at all, but do they last?
I have Kodak PhotoCDs from the 1990s that are already
unreadable, despite ideal handling & storage.
You can buy this stuff:
but even so, unless you have a stewardship process in
place, verifying or re-copying them every few years,
there is substantial risk of loss.
And bargain-brand CDR media is entirely unreliable,
esp. the Russian-made junk.
Really? My first floppies were eight inches or something like that. I, too, have a bunch in my basement with nothing to read them on.
I have a ca. 1981 ATT PC which still runs Wordstar very nicely. Am trying to figure out how on EARTH to get some of the data off the hard drive and onto my regular computer. My sixteen-year-old daughter's baby journal is on there and it's precious. So are the early novels I wrote but never published, which are now suddenly in demand. If anyone has any suggestions short of retyping, please let me know!
I wouldn't bet too heavily on the burned CD/DVD being readable
for that long. They are made with various organic dyes an must be protected from light, heat, and air. They are not all created with the same processes or materials and none have
existed for 100 years.
Well I have some from the 80's that are still good as new and work just fine so at least 20+ years.
Admittedly I personally don't trust the digital age and just got a digital camera recently after giving in to my wife.
I still prefer having negatives but you can't beat the ability to delete bad pictures.
Whoever comes up with the ability to transfer digital images to negatives cost effectively will make a mint.
Arrogant fools in every age think everything is better than everything that preceeded it.
If you have a local college, perhaps their ITS office could help out.
Go on Ebay and find a compatible printer. Then you can at least print them out and scan them into a newer format.
Different type of CD. Back then they were analog. As long as the media is digital any kind of conversion is possible. Many banks still have very old records on 9 track tapes, and they are still surefull.
It's not just the issue of burning images to a disk. It's being able to find software to view the images. As a professional photographer, I can tell you that there are already problems associated with viewing some of the first digital images I captured six years ago.
Since CDs haven't been in widespread use for 100 years yet, that's totally a "head in the sand" presumption. I doubt if even the stamped gold plated CDs will last 100 years.
How about we print out everything at least once, photograph it in black and white? That lasts a long, long time...
Of course, I'm one of those people with old computers stashed in the closet because of various treasures on them which will probably never be accessed again....
That's the whole point. Nobody knows.
I have to believe that someone will write the software to fill that market gap eventually.
Of course that does nothing for you at the moment.
What you're talking about is exactly the reason I rejected two photogs for our wedding. They only used digital and I wanted negatives.
ROTFL! Gotta keep that grant money coming in, fellas!
Or try this one:
Library of Congress [insert Go'vt agency of your choice here] has spent the past several years forming committees and issuing reports
Theoretically, IF the CD is kept in a dark environment, free of dust and with a stable temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. And using top-of-the-line CD-Rs.
Operationally, 5-10 years is more likely for a written CD-R lifespan.
Thanks for that link. Anybody who hopes to have things like family pictures last long enough to be enjoyed generations from now, ought to try this product. I know I will.
You were already getting married, how many more negatives did you need, LOL!!
E-mail them to yourself on another machine as ASCII.
We have had a home computer since 1994 so you can imagine the changes we have been through. I still have my external zip drives somewhere..lol.
Are you saying DVD's last longer than CD's or are you just continually upgrading to keep your data on the newest thing out there?
You missed the point of the article. It is about how to read that CD 20 years from now.
For example, do you have any old databases on 5 1/4 inch floppies?
I don't blame you for choosing negs. I still shoot all of my weddings on film and use that fact as a selling point.
You can always burn images to CD but the viewing sofware will change and eventually (sooner than you think) JPG, TIFF, BMP will not be standard formats. What do you do then? Convert your thousands and thousands of images to the new format? Lots of luck. I deal with this issue every day in my business. Engineering documents that have been created over the past 20 years need to be accessed today and the cost of converting them to current file formats is VERY EXPENSIVE.
Rule of thumb, make sure you have a hard copy of everything you want to save.
Lots of stuff will get lost, but that is nothing new. The thing that makes digital special is that files can be copied to new media without loss. Nothing guarantees that they will be.
And even if family images could be preserved forever, who will have the time to view them. In the past five years my family (four adults now) has accumulated about 50,000 images. All but maybe a thousand are either trash or redundant.
When my daughter got married I spent several months putting together a digital slide show. I went through 25 years of old photos, scanning the best, cropping them, and correcting the color of faded prints. I wound up with about 700 images worth preserving, all of which fit on one CD.
Will those survive a hundred years? They will if there are people interested in keeping them.
Are you aware that high res negatives can be produced from digital images?
It's done every day.
100+ years? In your dreams, I'm afraid; much professional literature addresses the transience of CD as a storage medium. There are many documented instances of properly archived CDs becoming partially or completely unreadable in scant years, let alone decades. Save your "Duh"s for the easy ones; this is an incredibly important issue that is not subject to quick'n'easy resolution, and that is becoming more and more difficult to solve.
You either didn't read or didn't understand the story.
100 years? No. Not even close. 5-10 years in most cases.
Even in cases where the physical media remains intact and readable, it can be a challenge to find software that reads old file formats. Also the software that reads many old files will not function on newer operating systems. Many old Windows 3.1 programs will not function in XP, generating errors on load up.
So pick your poison. Keep old machines handy to read old files, and those machines *might* boot up for you later when you decide you need these old files. Or cross your fingers and hope the OS of tomorrow will care to play nice with your data - if your CD is still good, which is a long shot.
I wouldn't count on it.
Here's a depressing little snippet:
The Dutch PC-Active magazine has done an extensive CD-R quality test. For the test the magazine has taken a look at the readability of discs, thirty different CD-R brands, that were recorded twenty months ago. The results were quite shocking as a lot of the discs simply couldn't be read anymore:
Roughly translated from Dutch:
The tests showed that a number of CD-Rs had become completely unreadable while others could only be read back partially. Data that was recorded 20 months ago had become unreadable. These included discs of well known and lesser known manufacturers.
> Different type of CD. Back then they were analog.
CDs have never been analog. The underlying data structure
introduced in 1984 is digital.
Wut yoo sed.
Ooops, it's Kodak, right?
The other possibility is printing the images on paper in digital form. I recall a technique that would store digital data on paper that looked as if someone sprayed ink randomly at it.
Then of course, there is always antique "silver" film...
Personally yes, Apple IIc.
About 7 years ago, I migrated some 300 3.5" floppies to CD-Rs. It gave me a chance to weed out and decide what I wanted to keep.
Last year I bought a DVD-R. I have some 20 CD-Rs, mostly old software versions. I think about migrating to DVD-R and tossing, but some of the old programs are still usable. I have a laptop that runs Win95 and know people still running Win98. So, I'll wait awhile before dumping the older programs.
It was definately a selling point for me.
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