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Dec 10, 2021

(+) Protecting Your Genealogy Data for Years to Come

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

Genealogists have long relied on paper for storing their genealogy publications. While useful, paper does not last forever. Even the best acid-free paper will deteriorate someday. Even worse, today’s printer inks and laser toners used to print on that paper will disappear many years earlier. Suppose, then, that you print out your records on the finest quality archival paper today and put it away in a safe deposit box for posterity. Within ten or twenty years, that data may become unreadable as the printed characters slowly fade away. The cruel irony is that high-quality, acid-free paper is worthless if it looks blank!

Life expectancy of the media used for storage isn’t the only issue. A bigger problem may be the capability to read that media many years after its creation. Paper records are easy to read if the paper does not disintegrate and the ink does not fade. However, other media are often used and almost always have limitations.

For instance, my first computerized genealogy records were stored on 80-column punch cards. When was the last time you saw a device that could read those cards? My data stored on punch cards is now useless, regardless of the life expectancy of those cards.

My next genealogy database was stored on 8-inch floppy diskettes in dBase-II, a popular database program that ran on CP/M computers. (CP/M was the forerunner of MS-DOS, which, in turn, has been replaced by Windows.) 8-inch floppies were very popular in the late 1970s and very early 1980s. Again, those 8-inch floppies are now useless as nobody makes equipment to read them anymore. My data stored on those disks is now inaccessible.

As technology evolved, I updated my hardware and software. I moved to 5 ¼-inch floppies, then to 3 ½-inch floppies, then to ZIP disks, on to CD-recordable disks, and I recently added a DVD-recordable drive to my networked computers. However, each of these also has a finite lifespan: the applicable medium is destined to become as obsolete as the 80-column punch cards.

For many years genealogists, librarians, historians, and archivists have relied on microfilm and microfiche for long-term records preservation. Properly created and stored, these films should last a century or longer. However, I was quite surprised recently to learn that microfilm and microfiche are doomed to become obsolete and unusable long before then.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has sent microfilm cameras and crews to locations all over the world for many years. These microfilm cameras have recorded hundreds of millions of records, and almost everyone involved was confident that the organization would continue to film more records forever and ever. However, a problem has arisen in the past few years: nobody makes the microfilm cameras anymore. As present cameras wear out, or if the Church wishes to expand the number of teams, there are no new microfilm cameras to be had.

It seems that almost every organization in the world (except perhaps for genealogy) is going digital. Hospitals, insurance companies, governments, and others who used to microfilm records for long-term preservation have now stopped doing so and have switched to digitally-scanned records. Who can blame them? With digital scanning, expenses are lower and record storage space requirements are greatly reduced.

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