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Apr 23, 2021

Digital Files May Last Much, Much Longer than Paper or Microfilm

NOTE: This is an updated version of an article I originally published several years ago. A newsletter reader recently questioned the life expectancy of digital files versus paper. I referred him to my earlier article but noticed that it was a bit out of date. I have now rewritten part of the original article and am republishing it today.

I often write about digital products for use in genealogy. Here is a comment I hear and read all the time: “I am going to keep my files on paper to make sure they last for many years, longer than digital files.”

Wrong! Properly maintained, digital files will always last much, much longer than paper or microfilm. Let’s focus on the phrase, “properly maintained.”

Documents printed on paper will last 25 to 100 years, sometimes more, depending upon the type of paper used, the ink that is used, the binding, storage conditions, and so forth. Ink fades, toner fades even more quickly, and the stuff that substitutes for real ink in inkjet printers fades the fastest of all. Paper darkens. While archival quality paper may last for a century or more, the much more common acid-based paper will start to deteriorate win 10 years or so. Exposure to light, humidity, and variable temperatures only hastens the degradation of the printed words and images.

Anything you create today on paper probably will last your lifetime if properly cared for. However, it probably will not be readable by your great-great-grandchildren.

Anything published on microfilm will last 200 or 300 years, if stored in optimum climate-controlled conditions and if the microfilm is never used. (Microfilm is fragile and scratches easily with use. If used often enough, the scratches will eventually make the microfilm unreadable.)

Storing paper or microfilm for archival purposes also assumes the storage location will be preserved. That is, there will never be a fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake, tornado, burst water pipe, a roof collapse, or even human error. Of course, that is impossible to guarantee.

In the past few years, I have reported about losses of paper documents in major archives around the world because of earthquakes, fires, floods, and similar disasters. For a recent example, see my story earlier this week at https://eogn.com/page-18080/10335566.

Even then, I only report the major stories, those where millions of documents are lost. I don’t know how many people lose their personal papers due to disasters or human error, but I suspect the number is large.

Ideally, all paper and microfilm should have multiple copies made and stored in different locations in order to protect against local disasters. However, that is usually too difficult and too expensive to be practical. No matter how good the storage conditions, paper and microfilm have a life expectancy measured in seconds when a fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake, or tornado hits the building. Even a simple burst water pipe can destroy millions of paper records. That has happened many times in the past and undoubtedly will happen again.

Luckily, digital files will last forever and will not deteriorate from use if proper precautions are taken. Simply make multiple copies of each file and store those copies in DIFFERENT, widely-separated locations. Luckily, that doesn’t cost much with digital files and only requires a few minutes of your time.

Of course, in order to last forever, the files also must be copied to new media every few years, and the file format must be updated (converted) to new formats, as needed. For instance, if copies are stored on CD-ROM disks, those copies need to be re-copied to newer forms of storage as the technology changes. If images are stored in JPG format, they do need to be converted to new formats as newer formats become available. Data that is “maintained” properly in the latest formats on the latest storage devices will remain visible forever.

We have a great example of the wisdom of data format conversion. When the Social Security Administration first started computerizing death records, the information was recorded on 80-column punch cards. However, not many people have punch card readers on their computers at home these days and yet we can still access those records today. How is this possible? Simple. After five or ten years or so, the records were copied from 80-column punch cards to 3/4-inch magnetic tape. A few years later, before 3/4-inch magnetic tape became completely obsolete, the records were copied to the more modern storage on 1/2-inch magnetic tape. A few years later, before 1/2-inch magnetic tape became completely obsolete, the records were copied to the more modern storage of disk drives. Still later, those 1/2-inch magnetic tapes and disk drives were copied time and again, each time to more modern media.

Not only were single copies made, but multiple copies were made and stored in different locations. Unlike paper, a single disaster is not going to destroy all the copies of the computerized records. One fire at one Social Security Administration facility is not going to destroy all copies of millions of records, as happened to the paper records stored at NARA’s military personnel records in St. Louis in 1973. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Personnel_Records_Center_fire for details.) Nothing is ever guaranteed, but I would bet that the Social Security Administration’s computerized records stored in several different locations will last a lot longer than did the paper records at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973.

For relatively small amounts of money, digital files can have two, three, five, or even ten copies made and each copy can be stored in a different location, even overseas.

Luckily, all well-run data centers have been doing all this for years. The Social Security Administration is but one example. Others, including NASA, the military, almost every corporation, and even schools and non-profits, keep up-to-date multiple copies of their important data and they store those copies in different locations to protect against fire, floods, tornados, and other local disasters.

Data maintenance and preservation is a well-established practice that is already in use in thousands of data centers today. You can easily do the same at home.

The answer lies in making frequent copies, something that is easy to do with digital files but much harder with paper or microfilm. Both paper and microfilm can be copied, but each new paper or microfilm copy suffers from a bit of degradation. That is, the copy is never as good as the original. If you have a copy of a copy of a copy, the loss will be significant.

To see this, write or print something on paper. Anything. Then make a photocopy of it using any standard photocopy machine. Then make a copy of the photocopy. Then make another photocopy of the latest photocopy. Do this about ten or more times, each time making a new photocopy image of the latest photocopy.

The result will eventually be unreadable.

Digital files, however, do not suffer from degradation. Each bit and byte is the same to a computer, no matter how many times it gets copied; so, the quality of a copy of a digital image will be just as good as the original. If you make copies of the copies, they, too, will be exactly as clear and readable as the original. Go through a similar exercise with digital images, copy the copy, then re-copy the result, and so on through ten “generations.” Unlike copying paper and microfilm, the result of copying ten generations of a digital image will be a new image that is exactly the same as the original. There will be no loss or degradation.

To be sure, putting a digital image on the shelf and leaving it there, unattended, does mean it will become obsolete within a few years. Luckily, no well-run data center ever does that. Using proper data maintenance techniques that have been proven over the years, digital data can last forever.

While this is common practice in data centers, it is not so common in our homes. Yet you can easily do the same for any data or images you store digitally.

Make frequent copies. Make sure you have multiple backups, stored in different locations. Store a copy on your computer, store another copy on an external hard drive, store another copy on a flash drive, store another copy in the cloud on some Internet backup service, give a copy to your relatives, and so on. You can never make too many copies. Make sure you store them in a number of places many miles apart.

There is a phrase that most archivists use that seems appropriate: L.O.C.K.S.S. That stands for “Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.” The archivists are correct. They also know to store those copies in widely-separated locations.

You also need to convert each file to more modern formats, as needed. For instance, if you created word processing files thirty years ago using WordStar (a popular word processor of the time), those files need to be updated to a more modern program’s format. The most common word processor format of today is DOC files, originally used with Microsoft Word and now also used by almost every word processor on the market. Luckily, it is still easy today to convert WordStar files to DOC format using any of a number of different programs but that will not be true forever. The files need to be converted while conversion software is still available.

DOC files are becoming obsolete and the newer format is DOCX. Are you converting your personal DOC files to the new DOCX format? That is still easy to do with most all of today’s word processors but I am not sure it will be easy to do 20 or 30 years from now. You might start converting your DOC files now!

The same is true for all those photographs you have stored as digital files. JPG and TIFF are the most popular formats today, but those will change someday. When the time comes, convert your files to whatever replaces JPG and TIFF. There are a number of programs available that will convert large numbers of image files to a different format, and some of them are available free of charge. With such programs, batch conversions of a few hundred or even a few thousand digital files usually are easy to accomplish within minutes.

If you care about your information and pictures, make sure at least one younger relative has the same interest you do and will carry on after you are gone. Ideally, you should more than one such interested relative. When it comes to your family history, this human backup complements your file backup. In fact, you know those multiple backups and multiple locations I mentioned? It might be a good idea to give copies of all those files NOW to the people you entrust to maintain the information in the future. Having copies at their multiple locations is one more method of insuring that backups will remain available.

With very little effort and planning, you can easily emulate the best practices of most modern data centers. Digital data preservation is much easier than many people think – and it’s certainly easier, cheaper, and more effective than preserving paper or microfilm.

Apr 23, 2021

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