Lately it seems that each time I attend a conference or read through what’s happening in family history I come across articles about digital data. I suppose it is inevitable that there should be so much focus on thi topic with all that is happening online these days.
One of the thorniest problems facing individuals and organizations is digital preservation. In the past, and still to some extent today, organizations have used microfilm to preserve their records. Microfilm has a life of approximately 100 years. For most organizations 100 years was enough. If the material needed to be saved for more than 100 years then a copy was made of the film. Some degradation would occur between copies, but it only took ten copies to preserve the information for 1,000 years.
As more information is created in a digital format, microfilm has become less attractive as an option. Digital indexes and images are easier to use and to manipulate. They also take less space to store. Companies have begun to worry about how they will preserve this digital information over many years.
Each of us has this same problem. I have written in the past about the problems and blessings of digital cameras. I often wonder whether our children will have any photos of their years growing up since in many cases the only records of them are digital photos that are easily deleted and lost.
Some individuals believe that if they back up their photos onto CD ROM, that their data is safe, secure and preserved. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Data slowly degrades on CD and DVD ROM. Over time data is lost. At FamilySearch we have been testing ways to save data digitally for a number of years. We began capturing information digitally before we had completely determined how to store it long term. The data was placed on DVDs for storage until it could be migrated into a system for preservation. More than one copy was made to reduce the chance of loss. After only about 6 years there was already some data corruption on some of the disks. This data corruption occurred even after each disk was validated to ensure it was accurate and each disk was stored in a controlled environment.
Those who lived before the digital generation will sometimes cry out loudly that paper is the answer. They encourage information and photos to be printed. This may be an answer, but the choice of paper is important. Most paper we use today is made in a process that uses acid. The acid base of the paper will destroy both the paper and contents over time. Ensure if you are making printed copies of material that the paper you are using is acid free.
There are a few suggestions to ensure that you, your children, and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the digital photos and other documents you have well into the future.
1. Make multiple copies of data - CD and DVD are the only real options for physical storage. Making more than one copy reduces the risk of a disk going bad.
2 Validate that disk – Nearly all CD writing software has an option to validate the disk once it is created. My experience is that many people skip this step because they are in a hurry. Don’t skip it. It is also a good idea to browse the disk once it is created and look at the digital photos and other documents to ensure that the copy was good.
3. Copy to fresh disks about once every five years. It is worthwhile to audit your disks to make sure that they all can be read. If you have two copies and one copy stops working then there still may be time to create another copy before both disks are bad and the data is lost. Whether the data is bad after a few years or not, it is still a good practice to make another copy after about five years.
4. Print the documents – A great way to save documents, especially photos, is to print them on acid free paper. Even better, create a photo album. It is so easy to do this online, and it is surprisingly affordable. Apple will create a printed album from photos stored in iPhoto. The albums look professionally made. They are printed on acid free paper, and they make a great gift for family members. If you don’t have a Mac then online services like Snapfish.com will do the same thing for you.
5. Store a copy somewhere out of your house – I use an online service to backup my photos. It makes them available from anywhere, and if I should have a disaster (fire, flood, etc) then I can still access my photos.
Preservation is a topic in which all of us should be interested. The photos and other documents we are creating today are the same that our descendants and other family will use for years to come as they do their research and connect with their ancestors. Protecting this information is like protecting the future.