I wrote my first great epic when I was eight. It was a five-page history of the United States military. I wrote it on an old Atari desktop computer using a long outdated word processor. Granted it was heavily biased. All of my sources were Dad’s Navy cruise books, his fleet book, his book of world aircraft, and his stories. It didn’t even have proper citations; I didn’t even know what citations were at that age!
Of course, an outdated word processor also meant outdated typing standards. Typical reports and manuscripts today are double-spaced and Times New Roman with 12-pt font. This was single spaced, almost no margin, and about the equivalent of an 8-pt font. An outdated word processor also means, unless I have a print copy still hidden somewhere in a box, it has been lost to time. The only copy was stored on a 5-inch floppy!
The moral to this story? It is to make sure you save your precious typed documents and digital photos in multiple places, upgrading file and storage formats as new ones come along. And even with the digital age, it never hurts to have print copies too.
Why is this important? Changes are made to programs and sometimes the older file formats cannot be read. Remember the old Microsoft Works? It used to be an alternate to Word. I don’t think it has existed for at least a dozen years. It saved files in a different format than Word. The only way to convert the Works files to Word was to manually resave every document as a Rich Text File (RTF). Now remember when Office 2007 came out? It changed the file type from the old .doc, .ppt, and .xls to .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx. This time, Microsoft included a program within their software that would automatically convert files and allowed the older formats to still be compatible with the new software.
The file type standards also change. As we saw, the Microsoft formats changes also lead to a standards change because their products are widely used. However, there are other examples. PDFs are the current favored storage method of the database vendors and publishers because the format is based on open-source products. What if that changed in the future? Or what about how .tiff is the favored archival storage method for photos, but most cameras and programs only offer .jpeg (also, .jpg) options? .jpegs are more commonly used, but .tiffs are a lossless format that is easier to convert over time. Then the newer .png graphic is slowly replacing the older .gif format. What is the best way to handle these changes? One is to convert the files as new ones take over. Another is to use the archival based format, while tends to be PDF (documents) and .tiff (images) because it is more likely a program will exist that can convert the files for you. However, since .jpegs are so common, one would hope a conversion program would also be created.
I also mentioned it never hurts to also keep print copies. If you do, try to ensure they are printed on acid-free paper for longevity. Also, keep the copies in a safe, dry place. If they are very important, keep them in a fire-proof lock box or safe. In a worst case scenario, you can always retype or scan a document to regain its use and scan photos for the same. Plus scanning allows pre-digital age material to become digital.
Lastly, for the born-digital material, I said to ensure it is stored in multiple places. The best way to do this is to store the material on all household computers, burn copies to CD-ROM/DVD (especially the archival grade ones with gold layers), store back-ups to a cloud service (Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, Shutterfly, Flickr, etc.), and to have an external hard-drive solely dedicated to housing files. This way if one location is corrupted, the files still exist elsewhere. Also, never use a flash-drive for long-term storage. They are extremely easy to corrupt and are not known for lasting more than a few years. They are better for short-term storage, like transferring a file you are working on from one computer to another. Also, to avoid corrupting a flash drive, make sure you right-click on the icon and then select “Safely Remove” or “Eject” (pending PC or Mac) to remove it. Not doing this makes the drive’s life shorter because it is the most common way a flash drive’s useful life ends.
For a bit more on digital storage, here’s a link to a newspaper article entitled “Developments in Photo Preservation” from local source featuring a special collections librarian from my undergraduate university. It both reinforces and adds to what I’m saying here. A second source to look at is the Library of Congress’ Personal Digital Archiving guide. This guide covers how to manage and archive digital photos, documents, audio files, and videos; e-mails; and websites.
For an in-depth, technical look at digital information preservation, the Northeast Document Conservation Center has a digital leaflet entitled “Digital Preservation.” And if you are interested in creating digital images from photos and documents, check out Cornell’s “Digital Imaging Tutorial.” The tutorial is a decade old and standards are a bit dated, but the process is still the same.
Now that you know how easily digital material can be lost, will you make backing up your files one of your New Year’s resolutions?
Edit: 1/3/13 at 5:35 p.m. I caught a few typos that went unnoticed last night when I scheduled the post.
Edit 2: 1/3/13 at 11:32 p.m. I added a Library of Congress resource recently posted to Twitter.
Edit 3: 12/18/14 at 6 p.m. Changed Microsoft SkyDrive to OneDrive, its successor product.