The problem with storing information is that the media is always changing. Almost seven years ago, I bought a new computer. This was my first computer without a 5.25″ floppy drive. I reasoned at the time that I could always connect a drive to it if I ever needed the data on those disks. I never did. I have a box full of disks which may or may not have readable data on them. Theoretically, I could still connect a drive to that old computer, if I could find one.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks retiring our collection of 3.5″ floppies. I copied the data from a couple hundred of them, made a backup of the data, and then threw the disks away. I did the same thing with my Zip disks. With the exception of a few Mac-formatted disks, I’m done with that project.
At the same time, I’ve been ripping my CD collection. It makes more sense for me to be able to play music anywhere in the house, or on my mp3 player, instead of being tied to the physical disc. In this case, I’m keeping the originals. Copyright law permits me to rip my own CDs, but if I get rid of the discs, they’re not my CDs anymore. It’s a strange world.
But while I feel really good about getting the data from these older formats transplanted into something that will last a few more years, there’s still a long way to go. In the music world, we have a cabinet full of Victrola records that will be playable as long as the Victrola holds out. It has lasted nearly ninety years already, and doesn’t get a lot of use, so hopefully, it’ll still be around for a while. I’m less optimistic about the 33 1/3 rpm records and the cassettes. While we can still play both formats at the moment, the players we have are more than 15 years old. We also have thousands of slides that belonged to my wife’s family. They’re significantly color faded, and I’m sure they’re further degrading as time goes by. But scanning them is a daunting task. On the video side, we don’t have 8mm film to contend with, but we do have 8mm video tape. These tapes only play in the camera that recorded them. In December, I realized that we won’t be able to see any of those videos once the camera dies, and we really should be transferring the data onto something less device-dependent.
The movie collection is also overwhelming. With hundreds of VHS tapes, it’s probably going to be easier to just repurchase the ones we want to watch after the VCR dies. Transferring them to DVD won’t buy us much time anyway; it’s going to be replaced soon enough.
We haven’t even discussed data formats. When I bought my first computer in 1990, I remember thinking that I probably wouldn’t be using PFS: Write as my word processor forever. I got in the habit early on of saving all my files in both the PFS proprietary format and the standard ASCII format. All of those files are safely stored in a way that insures that I can open them in any word processor — if I can get them off the old 50-pin SCSI hard disk they’re stored on.
Ironically, everything I wrote in high school is easily accessible. This data is stored in two universal formats: typewritten and handwritten (my sophomore English teacher wouldn’t let us turn in typed papers because he was worried about plagiarism). They’re in an orange binder on my bookshelf. The room it’s in is full of bookshelves, piled high with print. Every few years we clean out the room and discard a lot of books, but somehow the shelves seem to fill back up. Print is still the preferred format for anything longer than a couple pages.
We have gone completely digital with pictures. Debbie manages the photo collection in Creative Memories Memory Manager. The photos are organized and tagged in a way that allows us to sort, filter, and search for just about any combination of people, places, events, and times. But she still has prints made, and puts those prints in acid-free, lignin free, archive-quality photo albums. Why? Because you don’t need technology to read them.
The scientific world uses Latin because it’s a dead language. The meanings of words don’t change over time, making it a stable choice for describing the world. In a lot of ways, print is the Latin of the Information Age. It doesn’t matter what platform, format, or technology we’re using. We can always read print.