Saturday, August 15, 2009

Long term digital storage

How long do yo think your digitized images will still be useful and available? 50 years? 10 years? 1 year? My earliest experience with the issue of long term storage occurred with my personal journal. During my first years of computerized journal writing, I used MacWrite, a popular Macintosh word processing program. After a few years, I went back to retrieve my older journal entries and found the my old MacWrite documents were no longer readable. Rather than panic, I went to our old computers and found one that still had programs that would read MacWrite. My brother was able to use the older programs and migrate the data into a current version of Microsoft Word.

The issue of data permanence raises serious issue, not just for genealogists, but for all computer users. An important report on the subject warns that "Digital information is at risk of being lost." That is the warning from 276 long-term archive practitioners who participated in the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA's) 100 Year Archive Requirements Survey Report. Although the report is now dated, (2007), it is still relevant to today's storage conditions.

To quote part of the report:
One survey respondent illustrates the challenge before us this way, "When using a digital archive understand you will have a long hard expensive road to keep the records. You have to think about the ability of your great, great, great, great ... grandchildren being able to read and logically interpret what your history was."
In another publication, Defining Storage Practices and Standards for Long-Term Digital Information Retention, two points stand out as related to genealogical information:
• Physical migration is a big problem. Only 30% declared they
were doing it correctly at 3-5 year intervals. The rest of the
group is placing their digital information at risk.
• 60% of respondents say they are highly dissatisfied that they
will be able to read their retained information in 50 years.
I commonly experience the fact that even ten year old data may be unreadable due to the lack of availability. This coincides with the survey's findings that defined long-term as periods over 10 to 15 years.

What is the solution?

To avoid data loss, the only solution is a constant an vigilant system of data migration. That is, continually moving your data to new programs, new hardware and maintaining adequate back-up capability.

Given this solution, what about all of those hundreds of thousands of genealogists who are depending on Personal Ancestral File for their data storage when the program has not been upgraded since 2002?

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