Ancestry Graphics and Printing has a GREAT article about preserving digital information. Whether you’re a genealogist or keeping track of warranties for your appliances, the digital information degrades too! Remember that history started with the WRITTEN word–nothing preserves your data as well as a good transcript stored carefully.
Come back next week for their solutions!
Will the genealogy research you’ve done and the story you want to tell your future descendants about their ancestors survive to be told? Unfortunately, your digital files may become useless for future generations if they remain untouched for as little as one generation, or about 25 years. For genealogists who are storing their research digitally, one of the intended goals is for future generations to enjoy their research; however, experts in digital preservation are in agreement that today’s digital records probably won’t survive and be readable for as long as they were originally intended. This means the genealogy data we have all worked on tirelessly may become no different than dust in the wind. And unfortunately, most people are totally unaware of the reasons why the data stored on their PC or other storage devices won’t survive for long periods of time and what they can do to deal with this problem. So why are our digital files in so much jeopardy?
What are the problems with the longevity and accessibility of your digital records?
We all enjoy the benefits of the digital revolution from less paper to more convenience, but when it comes to the longevity of our digital data, we don’t realize how much of a weak link our digital files really are when it comes to long-term preservation. While various forms of digital storage are great for us to use in our daily lives, none of them are a viable or reliable long-term method for storing and passing on our genealogy information to someone who will treasure it 25, 50, or 100 years in the future. So although the personal computer has allowed all of us to accomplish more and in far less time than at any time in the past, it doesn’t allow us to save our work in such a way that it will be readable for extended times into the future. Here are the reasons why.
- Physical decay of the media resulting in the loss of digital files – The lifespan of bits and bytes of data pales in comparison to the written word. Nobody really knows for sure how long data on various types of removable storage will last and it can vary by the manufacturer and the conditions of storage. So what may last 20 years for one individual may fail in 10 years for another. Although accelerated lifespan tests have been done on different types of optical and magnetic storage, the results seem speculative or dubious when you’ve personally experienced any type of data corruption or storage medium failure in your own lifetime. All it takes is just one bad sector and your whole file can be can irretrievable or unreadable. Your entire disc doesn’t have to totally decay for the data to be unreadable.
- Technological obsolescence of the storage medium – If you’ve used computers for any length of time, you have plenty of memories of the different types of storage medium that you’ve used to save your files. Everything from 5 & 1/4 and 3 & 1/2 inch disks to Iomega Zip disks and tape drives. Although you may be able to still buy these used devices on eBay in the near future, will PC’s of the future even have the right type of connectivity for these outdated drives, and will the motherboard and operating system of the future PC’s support them? If you’ve ever tried to connect old hardware to a new PC, you already know the answer. As technology advances at an even more rapid pace in the future, it will be doubtful that 50 or 100 year old devices will be available or used by anyone other than a digital archaeologist. Nobody knows how much longer CD’s, DVD’s, and USB thumb drives will be around for, but if the past is any indication of the future, the types of digital storage used and the ways they will connect to a PC will continue to change and evolve. So even if your digital files don’t decay, will your descendants be able to retrieve your data from them?
- Technological obsolescence of the file format – If your descendants get lucky and your data hasn’t decayed and they hired a digital archaeologist to get your data off of your antiquated storage medium, what hurdle do they have to overcome next? Proprietary genealogy file formats shouldn’t be counted on to survive. Think of all the different software that you’ve already owned in your lifetime and how many of those companies are still in business today. So your descendants and the digital archaeologist that they hired now have to deal with the unavailability of the software or the operating system to run it on. If they can overcome those factors, then they must next migrate your old genealogy database file into a contemporary genealogy software program and hope that there isn’t any loss of data or formatting during the process. Think of software that you used 10 to 20 years ago. Is the manufacturer still in business so you can buy a current version? Can you install your software from the 1980’s or 1990’s on the operating system of your current PC? Can you open any of the files that you had created with those older programs? A digital file depends not just on the specific software program that was used to create it, but on the entire operating system software and the hardware that allowed that original software program to run.
- Physical loss of the storage device – Regardless of whether your data is even readable and hasn’t become corrupt is the very real problem that it might just get lost or thrown away either on purpose or inadvertently by someone in the future for a variety of reasons. If it is on CD or DVD and mixed in with a larger stack of disks, it might get thrown out simply because someone doesn’t want to have to inspect every file on every storage disk or thumb drive you own. Or a more likely scenario is that the storage medium that your data is on is so antiquated that nobody feels it is worth it to hire a digital archaeologist to recover and convert the data in order to see what it is. You’ve probably come across old disks that you have created or used in the past when PC’s had disk drives and felt the same way – and that’s after only 10 or 20 years. You figured that if you’ve lived without whatever data was on the disk that it couldn’t have been that important. Don’t expect that your descendants will feel any different. While your spouse may keep everything you owned out of respect or ignorance, will your descendants save every CD, DVD, disk, and thumb drive that you ever owned and pass them down? It’s not very likely. Another very real factor that will contribute to accidental physical loss is the mere size of storage medium. Today many people use a thumb drive to back up important files, and you may even have a collection of these handy little devices. While you may know exactly what’s on each and every one of them, their mere size prohibits you from labeling them in any useful or long-lasting fashion. Compounding this problem is the perceived usefulness and value of any storage medium that passes on from you to someone else in your family since it diminishes rapidly over time because of the galloping speed of technological advancement. It’s different than jewelry, kitchen appliances, china, or power tools that get passed on. These small storage devices have become so inexpensive and common that they have no perceived value by others. So between small, unlabeled, and antiquated, the likelihood of today’s storage medium being kept by successive generations may be small.