Looking at the past in the future

As those who follow my other blog or who work on the preserved railway I work on are hopefully aware I have been photographing a private collection of railway bits, some of which you can see in previous posts.

Now this activity has actually got me thinking about storing this information and it’s longevity.

We humans are now storing more and more stuff relating to our daily activities, such as pictures and videos. It has been said that in a thousand years or so archaeologists will have more records of this period in history than any that has gone before. But will that actually be true.

Most stuff we store is on hard drives, CD/DVD’s and the like, but we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions.

1. How long will these storage devices hold our files without deteriorating?
2. In say a thousand years will we have anything to read these devices with?

Let’s take the first question, CD/DVD’s for example do not have an infinite life span, the technology is over 40 years old and many of the discs have deteriorated. I had some CD games a few years ago and the silver coating was flaking off the plastic disc it was attached to. I do believe some archives are looking at their electronically stored files and re-copying them.

In answer to the second question, let’s take for example a Phillips N1500 video tape, in it’s day it was popular, it was first available in 1972. Now if you are clutching one of these tapes in your sticky little hand, perhaps you found it when clearing out a relatives loft, how are you going to play it? I am sure there are the odd machines still about, but it would be difficult I expect to find one locally. This being the case I would guess that in another 40 years it will be impossible to find one working. Those that have been preserved will fail either mechanically or electronically at some stage. Electronics wise, will components be available to replace those that have failed, my guess is that the answer will be no.

Without going on and on what I am saying is that basically we are saving stuff on devices that either have a limited (in terms of many years) life span, or they will in years to come be unreadable anyway due to lack of equipment. This means that we could either loose the records through decay or loose them simply because we will have no means of reading the data that is stored.

Now I know what your thinking, you’re thinking I am perhaps being a bit dramatic and perhaps I am but in response I will say that I have here a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk, I wonder what percentage of people have a computer with a drive in it that can read the disk? My guess is less than five percent. I can remember using them less than 20 years ago.

This brings me to the conclusion that the best way to preserve digital images and documents is to actually print them and store the paper copies in a controlled environment. If you do this then I reckon they will be viewable for many more years than their digital counterpart.

What do you think?