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Preserving today's digital memories for future generations

November 16, 2009

by Mark Ollig

“The feelings of adventure, wonderment, and an appreciation of discovery.” As a youth during the late 1960s, this is what I felt the first time I gazed upon those vintage photographs taken during the era of my great-grandparents, grandparents’; and parents’ lives.

When I opened the shoebox’s full of these pictures, I was able to instantly see the images of the faces, places, and special events taken by the family members who wished to preserve those moments in time for future generations.

With many digital cameras being used today, family pictures are being stored digitally – not on paper – and this has me reflecting about those future generations.

Preserving something digitally is not the same as preserving, say, a paper book or photograph.

We can put a photograph in a shoebox, and for the most part, look at it 50 years from now as we would today.

The same cannot be said for how we will view the digital information we store.

Thirty, 40 or 50 years from now, what will young people think when they open a shoebox and find it filled with plastic Compact Discs (CDs), Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs), digital camera memory cards and sticks or – gasp – floppy disks?

Those memories will be trapped inside an obsolete storage media (which will have degraded or become damaged) and most likely will be unsupported in future computer devices – rendering them unusable and lost.

My guess is, we would see a few blank stares on those young people’s faces.

And, yes, I am a bit worried about it.

Our memories and the special events we document today are being recorded and preserved using mostly digital mediums, versus the physical film to paper parchment method of the past.

Just 20 years ago, we were backing up our text and picture files onto 5 1⁄4 inch floppies and 3.5 inch rectangular diskettes.

Today, you can’t buy a new computer with either of the drives necessary to play them on.

One way to keep digitized photographs available to be viewed into the future is regularly transferring the file information from the old disks to the currently used storage media of the day.

Converting the information from the old disks to new storage media formats as they become available is probably one of the best methods for making existing digital information available to future generations.

Another way to preserve digital photographs is to just print hard copies of them using archive-quality ink and high-quality paper.

This makes them guaranteed to be viewable without any electronic hardware interface.

Some of us may fall prey to having a false sense of security thinking storage media such as camera Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) memory cards, CDs and DVDs will last – when the reality is, these storage mediums will likely fail over the years.

The backup disks we make today may not only become damaged; they will assuredly become obsolete in the future.

Our day-to-day personal music, video, photos, and documents we store onto our computers’ hard drive are at risk of being lost forever.

It is important we establish a backup system, so our computer files (including those personal photographs and other media) are copied – on a regular basis – to CDs DVDs, or to an external hard drive.

If possible, we should be making more than one copy of our digital files and storing those copies in different physical locations.

There are also web sites on the Internet, like “Carbonite,” which provides online back-up services for your computer’s data.

We also need to stay up-to-date on the latest storage mediums of the day and transfer our important archived file information to them on a regular basis.

When your humble Bits_blogger started the Web Site of The Week online forum, I would sometimes use an originating web sites’ .jpg or .gif picture file source link.

I discovered reference pictures on my forum were missing, because the source web sites were no longer around, or the source links were removed.

Today, when I find a picture on a web site I intend to use on the forum, I will download the file to my computer’s hard drive and then upload it to my “Photobucket” web site account. I will then use this as my “source-link.” I can preserve the photograph on my forum page and never worry about the source web site link failing.

Photobucket is free and it works well. The link is http://photobucket.com.

Today we can pick up a 200- year-old book and immediately open and read its contents.

What will a person 200 years from now think when they pick up a DVD?

It’s important to not only preserve the memories and events we save onto digital file formats, but to also be mindful about transferring them to the next future media storage device, lest they become lost forever to future generations.

On the Internet, The Library of Congress has a section dedicated to the preservation of digital media at: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov.