How to Preserve Your Digital Photos and Videos … Forever
The stories that define our times in words and pictures are increasingly being created and stored digitally. But material that is born digital is just a series of 1s and 0s written on discs and hard drives, and it all lacks the permanence of paper. Will we be able to preserve our past for future generations?
The answer, professional digital archivists say, is "yes," as long as we take our cue from the presidential oath of office and swear to "preserve, protect and defend" our digital legacy, from valuable family videos to the slew of simple but treasured photos taken with cell phones . All it takes is a little digital savvy and tons of patience and perseverance.
For many of us, the stories that we want to share are those of our families. Transforming documents and photographs stored on a CD or DVD or on a computer into a coherent story starts with organization.
With more than 4 billion records in their databases, the folks at genealogy web site Ancestry.com know a thing or two about digital organization and preservation. Ancestry.com helps people trace their family roots and build family trees that are accessible online.
Todd Jensen, director of document preservation services at Ancestry.com, says the individual person is the basic building block of your story.
"You’re trying to tell a story to other people about your family," Jensen told TechNewsDaily. "Arrange it around a person, because it’s the person that you want to know about, that you have a letter or picture associated with. Then, as you group that information into families, you can easily organize that information in a family tree."
Organization is nigh on impossible, though, if you can’t find what you’re looking for or if you don’t know what you’ve found. The key to organizing files, said Jensen, is metadata, which is nothing more than data about data.
Anyone who has spent any time on a photo-sharing site such as Flickr or posted party pictures on Facebook is familiar with "tagging" photos with information about who is in a picture, where it was shot and other information that provides a context.
Tagging makes your files searchable so you can retrieve and organize them. It also preserves information that may be forgotten over time.
"Metadata is what is critical for us," Jensen said. The best time to save this kind of information, experts suggest, is when the file is created, regardless of whether it is born digitally or being converted from analog to digital by scanning.
Digital file formats and software change over time. Some, like the dinosaurs, become extinct. It’s important to select a popular format for saving your data so that the files can be read in the future. Ancestry.com saves all images as well as documents in the popular JPEG format, which is the widely used format in digital cameras.
"One of the benefits of JPEG is we get really good resolution and a very nice compression," said Jensen. Compression is an important consideration, since images in some formats such as RAW can take up huge amounts of space.
As an added insurance that you will be able to read the digital files you save in the future, you should also keep a copy of the software and operating system you used to create them, says Jeff Guin, public information officer at the National Center for Preservation Technology Center.
"There’s probably going to be an opportunity to use that software in the future," he said.
Guin also recommends printing out and saving a physical copy of your information. "It’s a proven technology. Things last thousands of years. We keep digging them up."
Make several copies
Once you've saved them, it’s time to preserve them. The Library of Congress recommends that you make several copies of your files and store them in different places, regardless of whether you copy to DVDs, CDs, external hard drives or online in the "cloud ."
Naturally, Ancestry.com has a bias toward the online option. "One of the advantages of places where you upload and interact is that they’re doing the storage and refresh for you," Jensen said. There’s no such thing, he added, as a "sure-fire write it to this and it will last forever and you can restore it no matter what" storage file format or media.
"Most archives have come to understand that the best option is to have a couple of different databases in different locations constantly being refreshed so they can mitigate a loss in one place or the other," Jensen said.
The key to honoring your oath to preserve, protect and defend, experts agree, is to "back up , back up, back up."
Jensen recommends doing it on an annual basis. More of us should listen: Nearly half of us never back up our computer files at all, according to a recent survey cited in USA Today.