Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Personal Digital Preservation

If you have digital images and documents on your computer, you are automatically a candidate for learning about the subject of personal digital preservation. To add to all the other burdens of modern civilization such as whether your wash is clean enough, your teeth bright enough and if you floss daily, there is now one more thing to worry about. Will  your digital files survive the collapse of civilization? Actually, digital preservation is a real issue. The reason I suggested it was linked to the collapse of civilization, comes from someone I was talking to recently.

This may seem like a completely unrelated issue, but my wife and I have been discussing getting rid of our land line and switching over to just cell phones. At the same time we would get rid of our obnoxious cable TV connection and thereby save enough to help pay for the extra cell phone service. One of my relatives suggested that getting rid of my land line would be a bad idea because supposedly, the cell phone companies (I assume AT&T, Verizon, Sprint etc.) do not have backup systems in place so if a catastrophe wipes out all the cell towers in the area, we would not be able to call because there was no backup. Of course, he could not answer with any precision as to what kind of catastrophe would happen in Mesa, Arizona to wipe out cell phone service, so I just chocked it up to the end of the world. I guess my question is, why do I need a cell phone or a land line if the world just ended?

Now the implausible tie-in to the subject of digital preservation. Individually, we all think of data loss as occurring with some kind of catastrophe, like a computer melt-down or our house burning down. Actually, digital preservation is more like termites and dry rot. Loss of data takes place over time and with small incremental changes, not the end of world. Although the end of the world or civilization will suffice if necessary. For example, unless you are totally disconnected from the world of electronics, you probably have heard some vague announcement about Apple's newest operating system, Lion OS X. But don't feel too bad if you haven't heard about the release, most of us are putting such things into the general background of things we are not really interested in. (Except those hyper types like me, of course). So now what does Lion OS X have to do with digital preservation? Everything. How many operating system changes have there been to Apple's systems in the past ten years or so, not even counting going back to the intro of the Mac twenty years ago?

Just in case you don't know, there has been Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard and now, Lion. Is this something you need to know? Yeah. Because with each operating system change, there have been files and programs that have been rendered inoperable or become closer to inoperable. Oh, but you say, I have a PC and that is Apple's problem. Hmmm. Not so. How about the following list: Windows 1.0, Windows 2.0, Windows, 3.0, Windows 3.1x, Windows 3.2, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 3.1, Windows NT 3.5, Windows NT 3.51, Windows NT 4.0, (in the interests of saving a few bits I will skip ahead to the main changes) Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and so forth. See Wikipedia:List of operating systems. I personally know people who are using Windows 95 on their computer. Until recently our local (not Mesa Regional) Family History Center had Windows 95 on its computers.

Metaphorically, changing an operating system is like the end of the world. Only, with the change there is always some backward compatibility. So when will the operating systems for PCs change again? Try next year. Operating system changes are almost always a result of hardware changes so you can see that there has been a steady change in the types of computer hardware as well as software.

Let's translate all this into English. If you don't keep up with the changes and constantly migrate your software and files, you might as well have been a victim of the end of the world. That's it. As simply put as I can say it. If you are still using WordStar with Windows 95 on an 8086 processor machine, your days are numbered. Everything on your computer is at risk of loss.

There is hope. It takes time and some monetary investment. You need to keep your computers and operating systems reasonably up-to-date. You need to review your old archive files periodically, no less than once a year, to see that they are still viable i.e. can be opened by current programs. You need to keep moving your data to new hard drives and other storage devices and not leave orphan data to rot on the vine.

Probably a lot more later.


  1. One of the nice things about open access software (such as Open Office) is that they have the capability of opening some of the old file formats. They may not do them all, and they definitely won't open genealogy files, but for a few other things Linux systems may work for accessing old systems and/or files. There are emulators that can run on a Linux system that will run old versions of Windows and the associated programs.

    For example you can run dos programs using a program called DOSBox, and VMware can run old versions of Windows, as long as you have the system disks. So it is possible to still run the old programs and convert the files to a newer format but it will take some know how.

  2. Think I will keep my paper copies as a backup. I only have a few hundred people so right now it is managable.

    Also the storage devices become obsolete too. I read that some car (???) no longer has a CD option.