Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Preserving the Memories

All memories fade. That's why keeping memories alive is an ongoing challenge, especially when technology is used - and technology is changing so rapidly.

Let me start with the bottom line: low-tech solutions work the best for longevity. The reason is that the less technology they use, the less they are subject to changes in technology that make them obsolete.

Here are some examples.

For still photographs, probably the best technology to use is black and white photography that uses silver based imaging. You will notice that some of the best archived photographs we have are black and white. This is because black and white photography predates color photography, but is mainly due to the stable nature of silver based photographs. Once properly developed, the image will last for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Color photography, on the other hand, starts to color shift after a few years. Look at almost any family photo album more than 20 years old and you'll see various color shifts, typically with a red or orange cast, that are not what was originally printed. While color photographs obviously provide more realistic images of people, they will inevitably fade.Movies are similarly affected. My history only goes back to 8-mm and Super 8 movies, but looking at them now indicates that they, too, have faded. The bigger problem with movies is finding a projector for them. I don't know of anyone who has a movie projector anymore. Transferring them to video is a good option, but can add up to some sizeable dollars if you have a lot of footage.

I've been wrestling with my own family archives for a long time. Backing files up to floppy disks was nominally successful, but that would also require transferring files from five-and-one-quarter-inch floppies to three-and-a-half-inch floppies and now to no floppies at all. CD-ROMs arrived in force more than a decade ago, only to be replaced with DVDs. Now with Blu-Ray DVDs available (albeit still quite expensive), we have yet another format to deal with.

Frankly, most people don't have time to perform the migration from one media to another. So here's what I've done.

For prints, I've tried to standardize on high-quality Epson printers, inks and papers that claim to be "archival," meaning they should last 20 or more years. I'll know in 20 or more years how good the claims are. And, since we don't have film negatives or slides anymore, what I do is put the image's file name on the print itself, so I can connect the photo back to the original file name if I ever need to.

For movies, I've standardized on standard definition DVDs. While I have a HiDef camcorder, I still can't justify the $10 per recordable Blu-Ray DVD to use as a backup. I'm hoping, although not completely convinced, that the cost of Blu-Ray media will drop dramatically so as to make creating Blu-Ray DVDs affordable. I recall when a blank CD cost $50 and now they cost pennies. I'm hoping that history will repeat itself.

The challenge I have faced is that of not only backing up data, but also reading it. To wit, although some of my early five-and-one-quarter-inch floppy disks may still be readable, I don't know anyone who has a personal computer with a floppy disk drive on it. And if they do, would I be able to move the files from that computer to something else? Probably not. The early personal computers were just that - personal. The thought of networking them was challenging; the thought of the Internet hadn't yet even been invented.

So, while my crystal ball is not perfect, I'm betting that CD/DVD drives will be around for at least a few more decades. That way, if I need to move a file from one media to another, I should be able to find a computer and some software that can do so.

Some have asked why I don't just store my data using an online storage company. In fact, I do. However, most of the online storage companies are backups of your local hard drives, which means that you have to keep the files on your hard drive so they can mirror them on their site.

The biggest problem I have is that if I were to keep all of my data online - especially video - I'd need terabytes of hard disk space, which I don't have and don't want to buy. In addition, should that company go out of business or otherwise be unavailable, I would lose my data. As a result, I keep a file folder filled with DVDs of my family videos.

So, while the shoebox of old is no longer, there's nothing saying it can't be updated to include prints from digital cameras and even movies on DVD. Some memories are worth preserving.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 June 2009.
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