The benefits of a digital archiving are unmistakable.
Moreover, the electronic archive can be retrieved via the internet, making the files available day and night, from anywhere in the world. Sharing pictures was never as easy as it is today.
At the same time, digital medium has important drawbacks, which undermine all the advantages. The first problem is the physical durability of digital data carriers or storage media, which is much shorter than that printed media. If treated well, paper can be kept for at least one hundred years, while good quality paper can be maintained up to 500 years. CD’s and DVD’s have a life expectancy of only 50 to 100 years. With increased convenience, so it seems, comes a decreased life expectancy.
Worse, however, is the life expectancy of (re)writable optical media, like CD’s and DVD. These are the storage media that most people use to save their family pictures, writings and movies.
Manufacturers of (re)writable optical discs claim a life expectancy comparable to that of compact discs, but experts say these claims are way too optimistic. Archivists count on a maximum life expectancy of around ten years, comparable to the life expectancy of magnetic tapes like music and video cassettes.
Rewritable media might resemble pre-recorded digital media, but they are a very different technology. They are decaying much faster and they are extremely vulnerable to environmental conditions like humidity, temperature and even light. If not saved with care, these media can become unusable in just a few years, or even months.
Hard disks and portable media like mp3-players, USB-sticks and external hard drives also have a disappointing life expectancies of less than ten years. Therefore, if you want to keep digital information for a lifetime, you have to copy the data to new discs every couple of years. Archivists and professional photographers are doing that already. They also make two copies: one to use and one to store in optimal conditions.
Unfortunately, the limited physical life expectancy of digital media is not the only challenge for long-term storage of digital information. Even worse is the danger of technological obsolescence. An analogue letter or picture is easy to keep and store.
To view a 100 year-old book or photo album, you only have to open it. Not so in the case of a digital file. You do not only have to save the photos, but also the machine which is needed to view it.
To view a digital photo-album, you need a particular imaging program, which in its turn is dependent of a particular operating system of the computer used to save the image. This operating system only runs on a certain computer platform. If the photo-album is stored on an external storage medium, like a DVD-ROM, you also need a specific reading device. If just one of these components is not present, then the data are not accessible.
The ever changing developments in hardware and software threaten to make the life expectancy of the now massively produced digital information extremely short. For example: diskettes, the accepted storage technology during the first half of the nineties, are impossible to read on most laptops today. Digital storage media of 20 years ago (large floppy discs) are unreadable by most computer on the market today.
Chances are in twenty years we will consider CD’s and DVD’s we use now with floppy discs or the beta tapes of yesteryear. The storage medium does not even have to change format to become unreadable. Not all DVD-players are capable of reading CD-R’s or CD-RW’s, because their laser beam uses a different wave length. And if it’s not the data carrier that changes, then it’s a standard, a software program or a cable.
So back to the original question, what is the best, safest and most efficient way to store digital files? In my business, I have a disclaimer posted in the studio which says that the business can’t be responsible for damaged, lost or unusable photographs taken of clients for the very reasons mentioned above. Our company has several steps we go through to minimize the risks of storing digital media. Firstly, we save the files onto the computers internal hard drive, then onto an external hard drive, and lastly, we back up the photo shoot onto a dvd. Each year, we choose to remove the computers internal hard drive for safe storage. We also safely store the external hard drive along with a DVD and a printed version of the files. As you can see, the process of storing digital media is very time consuming and expensive. We recommend using several different methods to back up your important and most cherished memories.