Sep 17, 2021

(+) Digital Preservation for Genealogists

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

One of the more common arguments against saving things digitally is, “The required equipment to read it probably won’t be available in 25 years. I am going to save everything on paper because I know that paper will still be readable forever.” Perhaps the time is 50 years or 100 years, but I hear similar comments frequently. Indeed, there is some truth to that argument but it is somewhat misleading. Still, there is a simple solution.

Experience over the years has proven that paper is not a good preservation mechanism, and microfilm isn’t much better. The news reports frequently mention earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, building collapses, fires, and other disasters that have destroyed thousands of paper and microfilm documents within seconds. While not mentioned as often in the national news, burst water pipes will do the same.

For the past sixty years or so, microfilm was the storage mechanism of choice because it took up so little space, compared to paper. However, microfilm is almost as fragile as paper. Microfilm is only slightly more impervious to earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, and burst water pipes. To be sure, water-soaked microfilm probably can be washed and then dried for preservation purposes, but the other disasters will destroy microfilm as quickly as paper or anything else.

Digital archiving has its own set of problems and solutions. Disk drives crash, home computers occasionally erase data, huge data centers are occasionally destroyed in major disasters, and sometimes files simply grow obsolete by a change in technical standards. The biggest cause of computer data loss is the “oops factor:” the accidental loss of files. Any single copy of any digital file is almost guaranteed to be unavailable within a few years.

For confirmation of the problem with digital preservation, look at a report by Bill LeFurgy that was published in The Signal, a newsletter about digit preservation published by the Library of Congress at LeFurgy describes a survey of citizen reactions to the Kennedy assassination that was conducted from November 26 through December 3, 1963, by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The survey results were recorded on paper punch cards, which were used to input data into the mainframe computer used to tabulate study data. Summary results were then published.

When another national catastrophe struck on September 11, 2001, NORC researchers wanted to replicate the 1963 study by asking the same kinds of questions to assess public reaction. The aim was to compare how the nation responded to two very different tragedies. There was but one problem: how to read the punched cards from the 1963 study? The 38-year-old stacks of 80-column punch cards were still available, but finding card readers to read that information was a problem. Eventually, a vendor was found who could read them and convert them to more modern media. The vendor reported that they “had to refurb our punched card equipment; it had been sitting around so long it got a little rusty.” In the end, all worked well and the data set was successfully migrated to a modern data format. The story has a happy ending.

If the need to read the 80-column punch cards had not occurred for another ten years or so, the ending might have been less happy.

This raises a question or two about your genealogy data. How are you saving it for future generations? Did you save your information 50+ years ago on punch cards? Will today’s storage media become as obsolete as punch cards? Should you save the information to a different form of media? If so, which kind of media?

Many people claim they will “save everything on paper to make sure it is still readable.” Actually, that statement ignores several factors. Today’s information published on paper will deteriorate rapidly due to several factors.

Most of the paper used today is acid-based and will deteriorate within a few years, unlike the paper of 75 or 100 years ago. Yes, you can buy acid-free paper; but have you ever purchased any? Not many people do.

Even worse is the ink and toner that is used to create most of today’s documents. The output from your inkjet or laser printer may look great when first printed; but will it last for a several decades? Most of today’s toner and inks will begin to fade within a few years. I have a filing cabinet full of photocopies made from genealogy books. Some of those copies are now 35 years old and have faded so much they are almost unreadable. (Most photocopiers use the same printing technology as laser printers: the “ink” is actually toner particles.)

Paper is also delicate. It must be kept under tight temperature and humidity controls if it is to last for a century or two. It can easily be destroyed by fire, flood, earthquakes, and burst water pipes. Paper is also susceptible to damage by moisture, rodents and insects. Just ask any archivist in a tropical country. Paper also consumes a lot of space. That’s expensive space if it is temperature and humidity controlled.

Microfilm isn’t much better. New microfilm cameras are now almost impossible to find, and the manufacturers of microfilm already have warned their customers that new, unexposed microfilm will probably become unavailable within the next few years. Once that happens, nobody will be making new microfilms or even copies of existing microfilms. Similarly, microfilm readers are sure to follow the same path to obsolescence.

Various digital media are available, each with its own strengths and shortcomings. Even the so-called M-DISCs (see Wikipedi at are DVD disks that should last one thousand years, but nobody is predicting that equipment to read them will be available even twenty or thirty years from now. Even worse, the equipment to create M-DISCs is still available today but is difficult to find and is expensive. Do you know anyone who owns the required equipment to create an M-DISC today?

So, what is the answer? I think there is a simple, but effective answer. However, it does have one major drawback: it requires people.

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