The annual IS&T Archiving Conference took place at the National Archives in Washington DC last year and featured many topics and presentations on the management of digital collections.
While the discussions were focused on large organizations such as Cultural Heritage Institutions and Libraries (think, for example, the United States Library Of Congress), many of the topics presented are applicable to professional photographers and consumers as they struggle to manage (or not manage) their collections of digital images. I say not manage because many in our industry do not even know they need to be active managers of their digital files. These collections are hugely important if the user wants to have any chance of being able to use and view these files in the future. They represent precious memories of life events and family history.
A key point that was highlighted in various presentations at the conference is the need to migrate files in order to keep up with ever-changing technology. This includes the “carrier” of the data – that is the media the images are stored on, the file format, and the interface used to connect the carrier to the computer. We tend to take these things for granted and not worry about them in the moment, but you don’t need to go too far back to see where technology has changed. Let’s look at computer interface as an example of changes that happen. USB connectivity is taken for granted today but was not available 20 years ago. The original USB 1.0 was introduced in 1996 but was very slow. It started to become more widespread in 1998.
Technology changes and improvements are made. At some point down the road, a specific technology runs out of steam and a new technology takes over. This happened in the late 90’s when USB took over for the standard at the time (SCSI, parallel, and serial interfaces) and it will happen again. When it does, how will you read the images currently stored on your hard drive? If you needed to read data stored on a hard drive from the mid 90s, or even a floppy disk, how would you read it today? The point is the technology will change, making it difficult to read the files you are storing today.
In the hardware category, discussions at the conference talked about technology cycles, generations and backwards compatibility. As media technology advances – floppy disks, optical media, and flash memory – it was pointed out that there are usually two generational cycles where backwards compatibility is maintained. For example, when the industry was moving from 3.5-inch floppy disks to CDs, both technologies were maintained. As we moved from CDs to DVDs, both were maintained but the use of 3.5 floppies was dropped. Today hard drives are slowly being replaced by flash memory. We will have hard drives for a while yet, but at some point in the future, they will disappear just as floppy disks have. Key point: to read files on older technology you must manage your collection to move the files from the old technology to the latest technology before the old technology goes away. Think about this: if you want to look at your images stored on a 2010-technology hard drive in 2030, it’s only 14 years away!
It’s also important to keep an eye on file formats. The JPEG file standard has been around for many years and there are newer formats that offer much better quality attributes such as compression efficiency. Newer formats include JPEG 2000 and JPEG XR. JPEG was first released in 1992 – almost 25 years ago! How much longer will it be around and will there be backwards compatibility? When JPEG finally becomes obsolete, all those “safely stored” images, even if they are stored in the cloud (where interface and media integrity is not generally considered an issue) will become unreadable. Unless they are managed and converted well before obsolescence happens.
Interestingly, media integrity was briefly mentioned at the conference and as time goes on, indications are that it is not much of an issue. We now have many years of history of data stored on optical media such as CD and as long as high quality media was used and reasonable care taken to control the storage environment, the data is still there without error. Of course, as was also pointed out, while the media itself may be safe, if the hardware format changed even 100-year “gold” media is of no value if you cannot find a device to read the disk.
The solution to these concerns is to manage and migrate your file collection. This is a lot of work but has become standard practice for large institutions. It is a hard and often insurmountable effort for the pro photographer and consumer alike. But there is an easier way.
Make prints! It’s that simple. Once you take a digital file (picture, document, spreadsheet, etc.) and print it out, it becomes a permanent record that will last over time. We take a huge number of digital images and of course there is no way to print every image taken, but selecting and printing the best of your best images, those life moments and important events. These are the images you will want to be able to look at years from now.
Photographically speaking, the media you print on is critical to get the highest longevity. In typical home storage conditions printing on Kodak Professional Endura Premier Paper creates an image that will last for over 200 years, regardless of how technology changes in the future. And we know technology will change; we’ve seen it happen. With a hard copy print or photo book, all you need to read and process your image is some light, your eye and brain. Very simple!
For more information on the IS&T Archiving conference itself, please see: http://www.imaging.org/Archiving