Genealogy is information intensive. But all forms of information storage are perishable. The longer you spend doing research the more paranoid you become about losing data. Many researchers still take comfort in printing out their files. Some of us passed that point years ago. I now estimate that to print out my main ancestral file records, which I have in four different computer programs, would take at least 20,000 pages or more, that is 40 reams of paper or more and I have many times that number of names in other files.
At some point backing up your research to printed copies becomes literally impossible. But how reliable is electronic storage? All electronic storage devices and media is volatile. This means that the information stored can be lost, either through mechanical failure, catastrophic loss or deterioration over time.
Let me give an example. Suppose you use a flash drive to store your data. Although there are no moving parts, the drive could be physically lost, dropped and broken, overheated by leaving it in a closed car or any other type of physical loss. In every case, the data stored is gone from that device. Absent a back up or another copy in another format, the data is now gone.
In engineering terms, any system has a mean time between failures (MTBF). If a system is replaced after a failure (like with a flash drive), this is sometimes called the mean time to failure (MTTF) instead of MTBF where the system is repaired. Here is a long discussion of the concept of MTBF. See also failure rate. For a more readable explanation see "Making sense of "mean time to failure."
In the area of electronics, even if the MTTF of a component is exceptionally long, there is always the danger of obsolescence. Think of 8 track tapes and cassette recorders and now VHS video tape for examples. In the movie Wall-E the robot is still watching VHS videos seven hundred years after the humans left the earth. Of course, this is absolutely unreal. None of the present storage methods, hard drives, flash drives, solid state storage devices, tape or whatever could conceivably last that long.
So where does all this leave us in trying to preserve our genealogical data? Here are five suggestions for preserving your data:
1. Back up (make a copy) of all of your data onto, at least, three different types of storage devices. For example, have a copy on your primary PC, another copy on an external hard disk drive and a third copy periodically on CD or DVD.
2. Migrate your files regularly. This means copy them over to a newer storage device and reopen and re-save the files as newer software formats are released. I once had my personal journal in MacWrite files and almost lost it when the program became obsolescent, I just was able to find an older computer and make the transfer to Microsoft Word.
3. Make archive copies of your files and send them to various relatives or friends in different geographic locations. This avoids natural disasters wiping out all your storage devices at once.
4. Take a copy of your files with you (if this is physically possible) when you go on a trip.
5. Keep up with technology. If it is time to buy a new computer, don't wait until the old one crashes with all your programs and data.
This is an topic that needs to be repeated from time to time and probably will.