In this digital age, we have photographs, videos, family records — perhaps even a few words of wisdom — stored on relatively fragile hard drives.
All digital media eventually either fails or becomes obsolete, so how do you preserve important files for your grandchildren or great-grandchildren?
The basics of digital-media preservation
Imagine discovering that a vital, 30-year-old family document was stored on a 5.25-inch floppy disk. Worse yet, the document was written in WordStar on a CP/M-based Osborne 1 computer. To access it, you’d have to find a 5.25-inch floppy drive that connects to a modern computer — plus software that can read the Osborne disk format. Then, assuming the disk was still readable (magnetic media can deteriorate over time), you’d need software that can read a WordStar file.
Now let’s say you found a pile of 30-year-old audio CDs sitting in a trunk. The chances are good they’ll still work on your modern CD player.
There’s no guarantee that some future generation will be able to view or read your precious digital photos and documents (your archival files) in their current format. None of us can predict what format and hardware will be in use 50 years — or even 10 years — from now. But you can put the odds in your favor by following some basic rules.
- Archive files with common, universally accepted file formats and hardware standards. We can’t be sure of the popular image formats of, say, 2113 — or what physical media they’ll be stored in. But the formats and media most popular today have the greatest likelihood of being accessible (if not in common use) well into the future.
- Find durable media. Even if your great-grandchildren find a working DVD drive on the 22nd-century version of Ebay, they still won’t be able to read your 100-per-pack, DVD-R discs. The data-holding dyes in those cheap discs might not last even a decade.
- Be redundant. I’ll repeat that: Be redundant. The more copies you make, the better the chance that one or more will survive the ravages of time. And the more file formats and physical mediums you use, the better the chance that one will work.
The puzzle: How will they store bits in 2099?
We can’t really know what formats and media will be in use two or three decades from now. Twenty-five years ago, you might have stored your files on a low-capacity, expensive, and not-so-reliable hard drive with a now-obsolete IDE interface. To back up your files, you might have also kept them on floppies (remember floppies?) or, if you had serious needs, on a DAT tape drive or a Bernoulli Box — then the state of the art in archiving and storage.
Today you can still access an IDE hard drive via a U.S. $20 USB adapter. A USB 3.5 floppy drive will cost you about the same. But finding a way to access a 5.25-inch floppy, an old DAT tape, or a still-functioning Bernoulli Box could require extensive research — and probably some major cash.