Recently, Britannica announced that the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be printed; leaving only electronic versions available once the current edition sells out. To me the Encyclopedia Britannica brings many fond memories of reading articles at my grandparent’s house. While I love eBooks, I also see many advantages to real books: they feel good, they are easy to use, easy to share (ever tried to read an eBook over your wife’s shoulder?) and easy to access. But in this blog I want to focus on another aspect of printing verses electronic media: longevity.

A book printed on good quality paper can last hundreds of years with minimal care; the same can not be said about any commonly available electronic media today. Not hard disks, flash drives, nor optical media (CDs and DVDs). All of these ways of storing documents degrade over time. The magnetic layers used in hard disks (and magnetic tapes and floppy disks) lose their magnetism and become harder and harder to read accurately even if not used (and if used the drive mechanisms can fail or they can be dropped). Flash memory is based on storing an electrical charge which is lost over time due to quantum tunneling. Recordable optical media (CD-R, DVD-R, DVD+R) uses dyes that degrade. How much time? Less than you might think. Hard disks start to lose data after 10 years. In many cases flash memory is designed to retain data for less than 3 years (consumers don’t buy flash based on its lifetime). The dyes in optical media degrade and the disks are easily damaged. So unlike a printed book, you can’t buy the Encyclopedia Britannica on CD and keep it on the shelf until you need it.

Why should you be concerned? Besides books, consider other data you may now have on your computer or digital storage: personal documents, financial records, digital pictures, home movies, etc. Now consider which of these you can live without and how good it is to be able to access similar items from long ago. Have you ever found a letter from your father to your mother? Or a picture from your grandparent’s wedding? Don’t assume that what you can read or view today on your computer will be available to your children or grandchildren.  You can be assured that it won’t be there when they want or need it.

Given that there is no commonly available media for archiving electronic data, what can you do? The first action is to be aware of the issue and not to assume that your material is safe.  Next, consider how you will keep your data alive. One way is to copy the data to new media or devices every few years. Of course this means choosing the data you want to protect and remembering to do the copying. You can also extend the life of your media by getting the best quality available and using proper storage and handling.  There are CD-R and DVD-R disks that use a layer of gold instead of optical dyes, but these are hard to find and are more expensive (about $1.50 to $3.00 each online). Always use the slowest writing speed when burning disks for long term storage. Store the disks vertically and in the dark. For true archiving the disks must be stored at a constant temperature and humidity to get decades of useable life, but that is beyond most users. Another method for preserving high value data is to store it online and let the cloud storage provider deal with this problem. They do it all the time by storing data on multiple hard drives redundantly (the jargon for this is RAID: Redundant Array of Independent Disks) and replacing disks as they fail. Whatever method you use, you should make multiple copies and store them in different locations so a single accident does not destroy your only copy of an important document or image.

Another issue is compatibility of the media and document formats. The hard drive, optical media and flash drive of today might not be compatible with your future computer. Today, floppy drives and zip disks can’t be read without specialty hardware. Even the format of your data might be incompatible with the software of tomorrow. If you do choose to copy your files periodically, it is a good idea to also convert them (or a copy) to the latest popular format for their file type at the same time.

Of course there is still one good archival method for digital documents and pictures. Print them! Even common copier paper will last longer than a digital file and pictures printed at a photo shop (not printed on your color printer) will last as long a long time. With today’s scanning technologies you can even convert them back to digital information later.

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