A newsletter reader commented recently that we must always keep original documents (I assume that means on paper) because digital copies can be destroyed by viruses, hackers, shut downs and the like. Really?
First of all, paper is one of the most fragile storage methods available today. Every few weeks, I publish articles in this newsletter about some archive or other other facility where records are stored that has suffered a major loss caused by fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or burst water pipes. See this past week's article at http://goo.gl/EOO2cC about a noted history researcher who lost all his notes and other research (on paper) in a fire in his home. Millions of paper records of interest to genealogists have been lost over the years because of these disasters.
In contrast, preserving digital records forever is rather easy to do.
In a way, the newsletter reader is right. Indeed, no ONE method of storing digital files or paper should ever be trusted to remain available forever. Information stored on a computer's hard drive is always vulnerable. So is the external drive you use for backups in your home or office. Any one method of storing files is subject to all sorts of problems.
The usual method of keeping files safely is to use BOTH on-site and off-site backups. These days, "off-site" usually means the use of cloud-based backup services, such as Mozy, Carbonite, Backblaze, Google Drive, Amazon S3, or any of several similar services. Even cloud-based backup services theoretically could have a disaster.
There is an easy and effective solution, however: L.O.C.K.S.S.
L.O.C.K.S.S. is an acronym for "Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe." I know of no requirement that says we must preserve information on only one copy. In fact, with today's ridiculous cheap prices for hard drives, it doesn't make sense to me that anyone should ever trust one copy. Or two copies. Or even three copies.
We are free to make all sorts of copies, something that is easy and cheap today. Even better, we can store those copies in all sorts of locations: in the closet, in the basement, at a cousin's house, or in data centers in Rio de Janeiro, Capetown, and Mumbai. In fact, we can store any file in seven or more different data centers in seven or more different locations around the globe. What are the odds that ALL the copies will be destroyed? The price for all this? Peanuts.
I don't hesitate to store my backups in the cloud. However, I will never store my only copy on one cloud service. All my important files are encrypted and backed up on at least two different cloud services (and three or four would be better) as well as additional copies on my computer's hard drive, an external hard drive, various flash drives, and whatever storage media is available, both at home and in the cloud. I also keep another copy on a laptop computer that usually travels with me. If I had a separate workplace, I would also store a copy of my personal files in my office there, probably on a CD or DVD disk kept in a desk drawer or something similar. But I would never depend upon any one copy surviving forever. That's true for both digital files and for paper.
Who cares if one storage service is destroyed by an earthquake or flood or hurricane or other disaster? Who cares if my local copy is destroyed by a defective hard drive or by a burst water pipe in the upstairs bathroom? Any of these disasters should only be a minor inconvenience as far as retrieving the data. Simply use one of the other backup copies that was stored someplace else.
All well-managed data centers have been doing this for years with both on-site and off-site backups. Private individuals should do the same.
To be sure, any of the cloud-based storage services could disappear at any time. But will they ALL disappear? If all the cloud-based backup services should disappear at the same time, the obvious cause would be a nuclear disaster or inter-galactic warfare or something similar. If that ever happens, I doubt if any of us will be concerned about preserving old records. Instead, we will be focused on keeping our families alive, sheltered, and fed. I work hard to prevent all preventable problems but do not concern myself with problems I cannot prevent or avoid.
In theory, we could use the same L.O.C.K.S.S. methods with paper: we could make many photocopies of each document and store each of those photocopies in widely-dispersed locations. That's a theory, but impractical for paper. The expenses of storing large amounts of paper means that most people cannot afford to do so. In contrast, storing lots of copies of digital files is cheap and also very easy to do.
L.O.C.K.S.S. is a well-known and popular preservation method. For instance, the LOCKSS Program, based at Stanford University Libraries, provides libraries and publishers with award-winning, low-cost, open source digital preservation tools to preserve and provide access to persistent and authoritative digital content. See http://www.lockss.org/ for details.
Where are your important files? Where are your old family photos? Where are last year's income tax files?
L.O.C.K.S.S. will always preserve your data in any situation. "Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe."