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Notes from the Technology Trenches: How Permanent Is That Storage?

By Cindy Curling, Published on August 21, 2004

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

Anybody out there still working in an office with a microfiche reader/printer? And how about a CD tower for database access? Remember when fiche and CDs were the next big technology idea? I was but a young student working as a library assistant when my firm put its fiche reader and its computers with stand-alone access to our CD collection in a little room off of the main library. I tried to get my librarian to call it the "Fiche and Chips" room, but wiser heads prevailed.

That was about ten years ago, and since then most of us have seen both our business and our personal lives become much more centered on computers and the Internet. While there are still a few fiche readers and CD towers kicking around in the legal world, they are certainly less used and less glamorous than their Web-based counterparts. Nonetheless, they still have one important redeeming feature: Along with paper resources, when Web access goes, you can still use them. And for permanence, it turns out that paper wins hands down.

The TVC Alert recently pointed me to an article from the Baltimore Sun (free registration required to view) about the concerns archivists have with the instability of digital formats. At the very end of the article, statistics are given for the shelf lives of some of our current technologies:

Yow! Stone carvings and paper beat digital formats for, well, very long term storage, at least for the time being. The article discussed the National Archives' search for a more stable digital storage solution, but nothing available yet inspires any great confidence. While no one will be running out to the local quarry to stock up on stone tablets for everyday use, for those of us who need archival storage for either business or personal records, those shelf life statistics are a great attention-getter. Digital storage suffers by comparison to some of the other formats partly because of data decay, the term for the physical deterioration of digital data over time. Treat your CDs, DVDs and media cards gently! Dropping them and leaving them out of their containers where they can be scratched really does damage. Even with gentle treatment, they will not last forever. Digital storage is also problematic thanks to technological advances on the one hand and corresponding obsolescence on the other. For instance, eight track audio tape, beta format video tape, 5 1/4' floppy disks and large format laser disks have all been superceded by newer technologies just within the last few decades. As storage for data, those formats may still work fine, but you can no longer find the means to access them.

So, what does that mean in practical terms? If you have printed materials that need to remain accessible, store them carefully in protective containers in a paper-friendly environment and on a non-acid, lignin free paper. That goes for family records, photos and memorabilia as much as for business records.

Second, redundancy is your friend. Make digital copies of your important paper items, and vice versa where practical. Digital copies of digital data are a good idea too. Remember that all digital storage is not equal. If your CDs cost you a penny each at the local warehouse discount store, chances are they are not the best quality. They may be OK for making a souvenir CD of party music but not for heirloom photographs or for your household inventory. As technology changes, be sure to transfer the things you want to keep from the old format to the new before it becomes difficult.

Off-site storage can also be important. Think of all the families and businesses whose homes and offices were flattened by our recent visitor in Florida, Hurricane Charley. Digital photos housed online at a Web-based developer or backup copies of documents in off-site storage may be the only copies available in the aftermath of a disaster, whether it's a personal tragedy like a house fire or a large scale incident like a hurricane. Having a second copy of important documents like your insurance policies stored off-site is worthwhile even if you don't care that they last a hundred years. For more on this issue, see the Red Cross page, Financial Preparations, especially the section on safe deposit boxes.

So, while you may not need to treat every photo or document as a treasure you'd like your descendents to be able to view in future centuries, some items really are worthy of special consideration. Store them carefully in the right environment, make extra copies, and see that they are available in more than one location in case of emergency. Send me your questions and comments and I'll do my best to respond. Thanks, and good luck in your own Technology Trenches!