Digital preservation not without problems
To Melissa Eastin’s left, crumbling newspapers, faded photographs and record albums lie in stacks.
To her right, a pocket-sized hard drive holds thousands of historical photographs and newsprint pages, all scanned into digital files, saved from the fading elements of time.
She wonders often, which will last?
An archivist for the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, Eastin collects the texts, recordings and photographs that tell Baton Rouge’s history.
“Your individual memories become part of the collective memory,” Eastin said, swiping her hand across the room to note photographs and paper records from local churches and the fire department that tell the story of Baton Rouge.
“All the little pictures are part of the big picture.”
Today, most of the photographs and personal correspondence that will one day tell this era’s story are produced in digital form, stored and viewed solely on computers.
Some archivists and historians fear that present history could become a “digital dark age” — an incomplete history — because emails, Facebook posts and digital photos and videos will be dragged to the recycling bin or stored on a computer that will become obsolete and forgotten.
To prevent this scenario, or just to ensure memories will be passed down, Eastin and other Baton Rouge-area experts have advice for preserving your creations.
Technology evolves every day. Today’s newest gadget or software can disappear in a few years.
So, floppy disks holding that novel written in the 1980s are nearly inaccessible today.
The plug-in USB data storage devices of the present will likely give way to cloud storage — remote computer servers accessible anywhere you can hook up to the Internet.
“The format has to stand the test of time,” said Cal Esneault, a semi-retired research scientist who leads workshops for the Cajun Clickers Computer Club. “Actually, paper is pretty good.”
Because even experts have no idea what the future holds for collections of digital photographs, emails and posts on social media, Eastin recommends an “old-fashioned” solution to preserve your memories — make printed copies.
“I say print it off,” Eastin said. “I’m a nervous Nellie. I’d rather have it for sure.”
To ensure printed photos last for generations, Eastin recommends high-quality, archival paper and ink. Look for:
- Any brand of matte-coated paper — a nonglossy, bulky paper.
- Glossy papers such as HP Premium Plus Color Fast or Epson ColorLife.
For writings, such as emails and letters or a family history created for the grandchildren, Eastin recommends following the Library of Congress’ standards for archiving. Use:
- An acid-free paper with a ph of 7.0 or higher. Lignin-free paper is best.
- Paper marked as permanent paper, which follows a rigid standard for preservation.
Have a plan
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Walter M. Scott III, a retired engineer, saw friends’ memories turned into “moldy pulp.”
Scott decided he would “get out of the paper business” and set to digitizing everything he wanted to last, from long-playing records to family photographs and writings.
When he committed to his digital archiving system, he went all in.
Scott backs up his computer regularly and keeps three copies of everything he wants to preserve, using external hard drives and a cloud service called Dropbox — a practice advocated by the Library of Congress.
Once a month he even backs up his computer to a hard drive he stores in a safe deposit box, just in case something happens to his house.
He also commits to stay informed on the evolution of technology. Just as cassette tapes are now obsolete, some digital audio formats will one day become outdated.
At least every five years he updates his files to the latest software.
“You’ve got to be extremely mindful of changes in technology,” Scott said, a teaching member of the Cajun Clickers Computer Club.
“You have to be aware and ask, is this something that is fading away?”
Scott rarely uses compact discs to store information because he said such “optical discs” can degrade over time, and some recordable discs can actually last less than five years.
An alternative, recordable and writable CDs marked
as “archival discs,” are
created to last for future generations, said Kevin Duffy,
a coordinator of digital imaging
at LSU who often chooses to use
Blu-ray DVD discs, which he said can hold a large amount of data and are engineered
to last 200 years.
Photo collections are no longer limited by photo album pages or the number of Polaroids someone can stuff in a shoebox.
With unlimited storage space, organization becomes more important than ever.
For some, organization means culling important photos and files from the meaningless. Others disagree. With unlimited storage, they say, keep everything, but organize it.
Esneault contends people can only make good decisions about what to keep and what to toss after four years.
“Anything older than four years,” he said, “if you don’t have a good reason to keep it, then get rid of it.”
Emotional attachments degrade in that time, and after that most people can take a more discerning look at possessions.
“If you keep everything then you organize nothing,” Esneault said. “It becomes a burden to you. It keeps you from getting to your important stuff.”
Eastin agrees. “You have to be brutal,” she advises.
If you do keep it all, then find a way to organize it, said Duffy, who also teaches digital photography for summer leisure courses at LSU.
Even amateur photographers have thousands of digital pictures stowed away in folders and discs.
“At this point, we are at the point where everyone is shooting digital,” he said.
“We’ve seen this transition where all these new users in the last five years are getting overwhelmed with what they are starting to save.”
New software allows photographers to catalog their images quickly, Duffy said.
Photo management programs such as Adobe Lightroom and ACDSee can retrieve the date a photo was taken from the digital file’s data and allow the photographer to write captions to describe the photo soon after taking it instead of hoping to remember the details later.
“We rely on our memory,” he said, “which is constantly fading.”