Personal Digital Archiving – Potential Loss

Obsolete hardware and softwareSource: The Library of Congress

By Mike Ashenfelder

Your digital documentation (high-res images, bios, statements, CV, exhibit photos, etc) is probably one of he most valuable things you own. Yet, most people I know do not have a backup plan in case something terribly wrong happens to their computer.

Think about it, you probably have high-res images of works you no longer have access to anymore. The same way, probably most photographs of your openings only exist in digital format. Not to mention all the contacts you have gathered over the years.  All that important information can be gone with one bad day.  I have seen people loose all their records when a laptop is stolen or a hard drive dies out.

To me, that information is as valuable as gold. So, why not protect it and have a backup plan?  In a digital age where most documentation exists only in digital form, you need a digital backup plan.  External drives are one way of doing so. You can also burn CDs or DVDs or use cloud-based backup solutions. Some people are using Dropbox. Although, I am not always confident with free service that can change their customer agreements or just go out of business without any given notice.

Most people already know that they should back up their files. Like flossing or exercising, they know it is a good practice. But despite their good intentions, they may or may not actually do anything about it. It is usually a task put off until “later”. The best that libraries can do is explain digital archiving, explain how easy it is to safely archive personal digital material, and stress the consequences of inaction and the threat of potential loss of valuable digital possessions.

We can “store and ignore” physical items such as books, paper photos, and documents under optimized conditions for years and expect that we can access them any time. The key word is expect. But “store and ignore” does not work with digital files such as audio, video, photos, and email because they are dependent on hardware and software to make them work. If either hardware or software in ignored for a significant length of time, it becomes obsolete, and the digital file will become difficult to access. It essentially becomes trapped.

Software makes the files accessible, and the hardware (the storage medium) is the container in which the files reside. Each storage medium has vulnerabilities and a limited lifespan. External hard drives can be dropped and damaged. In general, the life of storage media is cut short by at least three factors:

Lack of durability
Obsolesce
Usage and handling (the more often a storage device is handled, the greater the possibility it will fail.

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