Is our media wearing out?

JRP Reflecting

Reflection – written October 23 , 1998

Ever think about media wearing out? I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I came across a box of 5.25″ diskettes. Lots of them. They date back to 1979 when I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III. The diskettes stored 80,000 bytes! Seemed like a lot at the time. Are these diskettes worn out? Well, who knows? Probably not but they are “effectively” worn out because I can’t imagine where I would find a diskette *drive* that could read them. I also found a box of cassette tapes that I had used as data storage on my Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1. Fat chance of retrieving any data from them. How about 3.5″ diskettes? Sure they are ubiquitous today but how about ten years from now? How about 35 mm slides? I don’t know the life of the slides themselves but like the Radio Shack diskettes, I suspect the limiting factor will be the life of the devices with which to retrieve the “data”. There will likely come a day when the slides will be fine but there will be nobody who knows how to repair the carousel or obtain parts for the projector. There are countless other scenarios of similar ilk.

So, what’s the answer? Let our children and grandchildren worry about it? No, I think we can do better than that. In fact I have been thinking a lot lately about an Annual Plan for Information Archiving. The idea is simple. It starts with an inventory of all media types in our possession: photographs, movies, slides, audio tapes, and CD’s. It also includes data which is already digital and stored on various media types: big diskettes, little diskettes, zip drives, tapes of various formats, writeable CD’s, and of course our system hard disks. Each year convert some of your “old” media to new media. I plan to start this myself with 35 mm slides that my mom and dad took in the 1940’s. I’ll move them to jpegs and store them on disk and tape. I’ll also scan some very old family pictures we have that go back into the prior century. Each year review the inventory of media and make a projection of what is “exposed” from a technical point of view. Look at new formats and media types which are emerging. It may also be a good idea to keep an eye on scanning and conversion technologies. It may pay to re-scan or convert files as compression gets better and scanning densities improve. If the oldest media gets moved to contemporary media in bite sized chunks on a regular basis and if we pass this idea on to succeeding generations it will hopefully get easier and easier (maybe automatic) to preserve our pictures, movies, music, and our very culture.

Footnote (thanks to my colleague David Singer )

There is also a distinction to be drawn between lossy and lossless conversions. Making a digital-to-digital copy is lossless (assuming you take precautions to avoid errors in the process), and so there is no reason to preserve the original medium. On the other hand, analog-to-digital conversions are potentially lossy (witness the debates about the virtues of vinyl versus CD, since CDs do lose any information above 22kHz), and so it’s best to continue to preserve the original and use it as the source for later copies. And on still another hand, some digital formats are inherently lossy (JPEG) and should never be used as the source for a later copy unless there’s no other choice.

There is also the issue of preserving more than the bits — even if you could recover the data on the Radio Shack cassettes, you wouldn’t be able to do anything with it, because you wouldn’t know how to interpret it. I think I remember reading that NASA has this problem — they have huge amounts of data to which they’ve lost the format, so they can’t use it.

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