Tech geeks are divided over whether the new iPhone 4S was worth the wait. Whether you’re a fan or not, one thing is clear, smartphones and the memories they capture are here to stay. Or are they? Those digital photos, music and movies accumulated over the years may be more vulnerable to loss than you think.
Backing up data on a CD-ROM, thumb drive or computer hard drive is only a temporary fix, according to William LeFurgy, Digital Initiatives Project Manager at the U.S. Library of Congress, who says digitally stored material may last for as few as five years.
“There is no such thing as a permanent or archival computer storage media,” LeFurgy said. “I don’t know if these devices are designed to fail, but they certainly are not designed to last.”
Consider the huge number of documents and records that are stored digitally. By some estimates, the world now produces more than 30 million times more information per year than the information contained in all of the books ever published. Digital storage puts it all at risk.
Concerned about this, the Library of Congress in Washington regularly moves previously recorded digital material onto new media, in a sense, continually “re-dubbing” it. The library calls it “active management.” LeFurgy suggests consumers do the same at home.
Digital preservation experts say people should not simply store their digital media, but should think in terms of an ongoing archival process of re-recording those things they want to save.
“When five years comes along, you should copy over things you value onto a new device or onto another piece of storage media,” LeFurgy said.
Consumers routinely back up their digital material by burning it onto CDs. But CDs are very vulnerable to damage and degradation. This is especially true of CDs or DVDs burned or copied at home, which are less stable than those produced commercially.
The Library of Congress has a website that gives advice about digital preservation. It suggests people organize the material that they want to keep and make at least two copies, kept at different locations.
Is there hope for improvement in the storage media?
“We certainly hope someday there is something that can truly be an archival or long-term storage media,” LeFurgy said. “But there’s not a lot of independent testing that goes on to verify claims.”
LeFurgy advises consumers to take claims of longevity with a “grain of salt.”
“That doesn’t mean you won’t get lucky or indeed that a vendor has created something that will last a hundred years…but don’t rely on that as your only storage option.”