I was prompted to write this post following a conversation I had with a colleague over lunch yesterday. We were discussing how to keep electronic images safe over time. In particular long periods of time such as years or even decades. It’s not just about taking regular bakups either. In the longer term and archive strategy that works and stands the test of time is imperative.
We are slowly evolving into a hardcopy-less society. Prints, as indeed film slides and negatives before them, are becoming increasingly rare. In their wake stand the ever popular “electronic” files, the JPGs, the MP3s, the AVIs and a whole host of others. People like them because they are easier to handle than their paper, tape or celluloid predecessors. As a photographer I can carry several portfolios around on my iPad to show clients. I also have a portfolio or book consisting of 14″x11″ very high quality prints but it’s the iPad with it’s smaller footprint that I take with me most of the time.
Electronic images also carry the perception that they are somehow safe. They can be copied, backed up and archived very easily. But the question still remains: will they stand the test of time?
I would argue maybe not. Data backups are not a long term storage strategy and an archive is only as useful as one’s ability to read it. Many of my clients ask for their images on CD or DVD but this, like the floppy disk, is a dying technology soon to be obsolete. It’s comfortable and familiar but that does not guarantee longevity of the date it holds. The hard disk is equally as bad and with our quest for ever increasing capacities and faster access we start to lose backwards compatibility and with it our ability to read the data.
Obsolescence and catastrophic failure aren’t the only threat either…
The most common format for client images at the moment is jpeg but this is a lossy file format. Many people aren’t aware of this but every time a jpg file is edited and re-saved, image data is lost. It’s not noticeable at first but in time, as the number of edit and re-save cycles increases the image will degrade.
Ultimately there is no simple solution. If you really want to preserve your data, your pictures, your memories you will need a strategy. Plan ahead to make stepping up to new, mainstream storage media whilst you still can. Furthermore, as your archive of data grows and evolves you will also need a means to index and search through it to find what you want.