Archiving digital images and sound is an underexplored challenge. We all assume that our digital files will simply be available now and forever. Unfortunately, that’s far from true. Without a concerted preservation effort, today’s files will not be readable or recoverable in as little as 20 or 30 years.
Properly stored, 35mm motion picture film from 100 years ago can be easily projected or scanned, and the information retrieved with astonishing clarity. So-called safety film, which replaced the explosive Nitrate film in the 1920s, is “software and operating system agnostic” – just shine a light through it to recover the images. All that’s required to archive it is some shelf space in a temperature and humidity controlled storage room.
This is very much not the case with digital files. Chances are that 20 years from now a digital file will have self-destructed and/or not be readable. Even if the physical file storage media can last for a couple of decades – a questionable assumption for hard drives and SSD drives — the ability to mount the file system and read the data will almost certainly be lost. Linear Tape Open (LTO) cartridges, often touted as an archival medium, will not do either. LTO cartridges may be physically robust, but the tape decks themselves are not backwards compatible. They can only playback the current generation or one previous generation of cartridges. As the LTO format gets updated about every 18 months an LTO cartridge created more than three years ago cannot be played back on a current LTO tape drive.
There is also no guarantee the operating systems under which digital files are stored will be viable decades from now. Anyone who thinks that a drive formatted under current OS X, Linux or Windows operating systems will be mountable in 30 years should try opening a file stored under Digital Equipment Corporation VMS, Silicon Graphics Irix or Bell Labs Inferno. Good luck.
Is there a solution? Well…
Studios and major media corporations such as DreamWorks and HBO hire archivists who are constantly migrating their assets to the latest medium under the latest file systems. But for the rest of us, that’s just not practical.
A reasonable interim solution is to follow the “WCI rule of threes:” always have three copies of every valuable file at all times. For long-term archiving that means keeping two physical copies, ideally in different physical locations and one copy in the cloud. The cloud copy can be on a file sharing platform like Dropbox, or for long-term deep storage in a data storage center like Amazon S3. This isn’t ideal as the two physical copies may physically degrade and as discussed, be unmountable in the future. The cloud copy is dependent on a third-party vendor staying around. But if the physical copies and cloud based copy are checked once a year it’s a decent compromise – at least for now.