May 20, 2022

(+) How to Care for Aging, Fragile Paper, CDs, Magnetic Tapes, and Their Data Content

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

CD-ROM disks, along with their higher-capacity cousins DVD and Blu-ray disks, are fragile methods of storing information. In short, these plastic disks are not suitable for long-term storage. Many corporations and non-profits are racing to get their data off the discs as quickly and safely as possible and into a more reliable digital storage environment. If you have genealogy information or any other information stored on these disks, you need to do the same.

For many years, the thought amongst genealogists has been to print the information on paper for long-term preservation. Yet, many of us have handled old pieces of paper that are decaying, crumbling, or fading to the point that the information is not readable. In fact, most paper manufactured in the past 75+ years contains acids that will hasten the deterioration of the information you wish to preserve. Add in the many problems of paper destruction caused by mold, mildew, moisture, insect damage, floods, fires, burst water pipes, and other factors, and you soon come to the realization that storage on paper is as risky as storing on optical media or even more so.

In some circles, the solution is to “digitize data so as to preserve it.” However, even digitizing requires some serious precautions and planning. Today’s common choice for long-term digital data storage is CD-ROM or DVD disks. However, that technology has only appeared in the past three decades; so, we do not yet know if these devices will store data for a century or more. Some studies indicate that the information may not last that long. In fact, there is proof that many CD-ROM disks may not even last a decade!

For instance, New York Public Radio is now transferring the contents of their archive of over 30,000 CD-ROM disks. NYPR Archives Manager John Passmore said that some of the older discs exhibit “end-of-life symptoms,” which creates an urgency at NYPR to move the content off the CDs and into the organization’s asset management system. Passmore gave a presentation at the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation 2014 Meeting about the issues and the solutions being used at New York Public Radio. You can read an interview of John Passmore made earlier in the year on the subject in the Library of Congress’ website at

The main advantage of digital data is that there is no signal degradation in the output. In a digital environment, data is stored in “bits,” often referred to as “ones and zeroes.” Each bit either is there or it isn’t. In contrast, data stored on analog media such as a magnetic tape of audio or video, is stored in an infinite number of signal strengths. This variable quality is the problem; the result of copying it, playing it, or even just storing it is degraded audio or images. In short, analog data will degrade over time; digital data will not.

The degradation of analog information is obvious when using a photocopier. Information or images printed on paper are analog. If a photocopy of the original document is made, the new copy is not as crisp and clear as the original. In short, the image is degraded a bit. If a photocopy is made of the photocopy, the image is degraded a bit more. If a photocopy is made of the photocopy of the photocopy… Well, you probably have seen the results when someone hands you a document that has been photocopied many times, such as “office jokes” posted on bulletin boards in many offices, jokes that seem to never die.

In contrast, digital copies are perfect reproductions of the originals.

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