How do we protect digital ‘memories’ from loss or obsolesence?

Two stories. Some discussion. A little advice. And a bonus track!

1. In 1982 I was an undergrad student living in an old, wooden country house with four friends. It was called “Total Loss Farm” – bad omen, eh? Our house caught fire  at 4 am one morning and was no more than smoldering embers within the hour. All our possessions were toast … but we escaped with our lives.

“What about your photos and LPs?” our friends asked.

“Gone,” we replied.

Why do we value photos so much? They’re not memories per se, but they do help trigger our memories, reminding us of emotions, experiences and relationships.

2. In 2011, I’d joined the digital age for home music, videos and photos, just like most of my friends. I carted our LPs to the basement the same weekend as I ripped the last of our CDs to the family computer.

With photos, we’d been fully digital for a decade. But as I attempted to browse our digital library one day, I made a shocking discovery: most of the hi-res images had mysteriously vanished. Only tiny thumbnail images and the folder structure remained. Youch! I scoured the hard drive – nothing. It appears that my photo management tool (iPhoto) was the culprit, possibly when I upgraded the software.

Luckily, I had various, scattered backups of our digital photos – on my work computer and in online photo albums. And then I remembered: from 2000 to 2005 I backed up our photos every year to CD (after that, the size of the files made this sort of backup unwieldy and I gave up). Gradually, I pieced our photo library back together, with only small gaps here and there. It took a weekend and a bit.

Discussion  So, are our digital memories safe, long-term? According to Thomas Homer-Dixon, writing in the Globe on Dec. 24, 2011, the answer is an emphatic “No”. He fingers two problems: degradation of the digital storage media (none are safe beyond a horizon of about 10 years), and more significantly, technological change in the means you use to view or play the digital files.

I would add a third “threat” – over-supply. We create so many digital files (think of your photos alone) that it’s hard to access the best stuff easily, without extra software. Once you rely on that, it’s easy to lose track of the originals, like I did.

Tad Homer-Dixon thinks the answer is to print hard copies of your favourites – real objects that will last more than a generation and require no special technology to view. But he has no answer for videos, since they always require some sort of projector.

Having tackled digital music, photos and videos in the past year, here are my suggestions for storing your digital memories, but first, a general word about backup.

Backup  I’m super careful about backup at work, but until recently, less so at home. Fortunately, the technologies for this are getting cheaper and more convenient. Ideally, they should be automatic. None of them work long-term, but they can prevent loss from a short-term hard-drive crash, theft or accident. I currently juggle three types:

External hard drive (e.g. around $100 from Future Shop), using built-in computer software like Time Machine on the Mac (I’m assuming a similar, no-fuss product exists for Windows) – I like this method best, because you control it directly.

Online backup using a dedicated service that runs constantly and automatically (I love Carbonite, for $60 per year) – the best protection against theft or calamity.

Cloud backup using Apple iCloud or Amazon Cloud Drive, currently both free for the first 5 GB – although these are currently syncing rather than backup services, so 5 GB won’t be enough for your all your data.

Photos  Backing up your photo files using the above tools is pretty easy. Photo management is a little harder. I now use Aperture from Apple ($80 at the app store). It does bury your “masters” pretty deep, so learn to “export” the files, maybe once a year, to some sort of backup media. (Our 10-year collection of photos fits on a single memory stick, which took about 30 minutes to create.)

I also like Tad’s advice: make prints, either at home, or using traditional photo services (they’re cheap and user-friendly now: upload to a website in minutes, prints ready the next day at pennies apiece, like at Pond’s here in Guelph). For special events like a wedding or a trip, I think photobook services are amazing – a coffee table book of photos that will last a long time.

Music  This is easiest of all. The new iTunes Match service (for either PC or Mac) is just $30 per year (it’s distinct from iCloud, despite being offered by Apple as well). It stores ALL your music online, downloadable to any of your devices at any time via iTunes (you must sign them all in using a common Apple ID). As a bonus, once your music library is “matched” with music in the iTunes store, you can upgrade most of it to excellent, 256 kbps audio quality for free.

Videos  This is the hardest data to manage, because of its size, and the projector problems mentioned above. One tip: don’t shoot too much, or at least make sure you discard as you view and edit, otherwise your library just gets unwieldy. After that, you need to save your original video files, your working files and the finished videos.

Long-term, there’s no easy answer for videos and the files are probably too large for online backup. Definitely back up your videos to an external drive, make DVDs of your best work, post them online (Vimeo or YouTube, at HD quality) and re-visit the archive every couple of years to upgrade the files to current technology and players.

Bonus track  Finally, here’s my favourite digital memory: a short video showing the arrival of me and my three sisters, transferred from my father’s 16 mm colour films, shot in the 1950s. Priceless, eh? Thanks Dad, for saving those bulky film reels for all those years, even if you never upgraded to a Super-8 camera with sound.


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