A Preservation Problem

Do you plan to leave your genealogy records for use by others after your death? If so, what storage method will you use for the information?

Paper doesn’t work too well. Today’s acid-based paper will probably last only for fifty to one hundred years or so. Even worse, toner used by modern laser printers and photocopy machines will only last ten to twenty years although the paper itself will last longer. Nobody will be able to read the paper documents if the toner has faded.

Archival quality paper with high-quality ink will last more than 100 years, but such ink is not readily available for computer printers. Would you want to write your entire genealogy by hand? Using a fountain pen?

Microfilm has been the medium of choice for years but is now disappearing. If you delay for another ten or twenty years, you probably will be unable to purchase new, unexposed microfilm, even if you can find a museum that still has a working microfilm camera. Besides, microfilm has never been a very good solution for a private individual with only a few hundred pages to preserve. Due to the expense of the film and the equipment, microfilm has been a reasonable solution only for larger organizations with millions of pages to preserve. Those organizations are now all moving away from microfilm.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago illustrates the problems involved in archiving contemporary records. As part of his legacy, novelist John Updike left behind floppy disks at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The library now has approximately 50 three-and-a-half and five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks — artifacts from late in the author’s career when he, like many of his peers, began using a word processor. These weren’t Windows or Macintosh or MS-DOS machines. They were proprietary format disks used by the dedicated word processors that were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s but have now disappeared.

I suspect that this is not a serious problem for Updike’s books. After all, there are many copies of his books still available on paper that will probably last many more years. The Houghton Library has plenty of time to create archival copies digitally from the printed books. The potential for loss involves his personal notes and revisions, the items that were never published.

Harvard isn’t the only university puzzling over new media from old — and not-so-old — masters. Emory University recently received four laptops, an external hard drive, and a Palm Treo personal digital assistant from Salman Rushdie. The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired a series of Zip disks and a laptop containing Norman Mailer’s files.

Even NASA had problems with keeping readable backup copies. The agency had 2,500 2-inch wide magnetic tapes full of pictures from the lunar missions, enough to fill a good-sized truck. Assembled on pallets, the required storage space was 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 6 feet high. Most of the pictures had never been seen by the public, and no backup copies existed on any media. These obsolete tapes were the only copies available.

There was but one problem: the tapes could only be played back on FR-900 Ampex tape drives. Only a few dozen of the machines had been made for the military. The $330,000 tape drives were electronic behemoths, each 7 feet tall and weighing nearly a ton. Worst of all, both NASA and the military had scrapped their FR-900 Ampex tape drives years ago. There was not a single working FR-900 Ampex tape drive left on the face of the earth.

So, how will you preserve your information?

16 Comments

I will carve it into rocks.

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I once actually owned a small microfilm camera / reader device, from Kodak. I picked it up at a garage sale for $20. It was the size of a small chest freezer, and barely luggable by one person. There seem to be a lot of added weight in the base to keep it from shaking during photographic sessions. I bought some fresh rolls of raw microfilm and tried copying a couple of books manually. This drove me mad with boredom. The microfilm I produced turned out just fine after I mailed it in to the processor, got it back and then was able to read the film on the same device. After decades of disuse, I hauled the device out to the curb & junk scavengers snapped it up within a few minutes.

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself and others for several years without finding an answer. Now that you’re asking the same question what are your answers? How will you preserve your genealogy research?

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So what is the solution? How long will a laser print hold up? Do we need to bring back the flat bed press? I am storing my data on back up drives, CDs DVDs and some laser printed paper and with some linage organizations such as the SAR, DAR and Family Search. Where else should I go?

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Now there’s a need demanding inventive solutions to provide modern devices able read “ancient” storage media. The ones who provide such device(s) will be wealthy.

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Unless someone has something truly valuable to save for posterity, will anyone really care that the records are preserved? I think we have to be very selective and try and save only the rarities, otherwise, there will be an overabundance of meaningless material. If our kids don’t even want this stuff, who will?

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Dick,
You make valid points, but as an archivist, there are several ways that the average genealogist can preserve their records for future generations. Simple products like pencils, yes pencils, deacidification sprays and proper storage can extend the life of photos and documents exponentially. For example, proper storage (i.e.property light, temperature and humidity control) of black and white photos can extend their life to 1200 years. Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory for the National Archives, has published a book, written for professional archivists, that is still extremely useful for all people interested in preserving their heritage. Here is a link to information about her book: http://saa.archivists.org/store/preserving-archives-and-manuscripts-2nd-ed/1599/

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I think maybe putting our family research into the “cloud” may be the answer, however, whoever controls that “cloud portal” may go out of business and it all may be for nothing anyway. Unless we find someone who is really interested in our research, it’s all doomed.

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What about shoving everything to the cloud? I believe all genealogy data, including all images (scanned at a high quality), plus research notes, etc., should be submitted to Family Search and/or other archival companies. This way, everyone can benefit from the research, and we can let the smart folks at LDS (and elsewhere) focus on managing the evolution of storage technology.

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This assertion about laser printing does not correspond at all with my experience. I have laser printed documents (not family history) far more than 20 years old with no sign whatever of fading. They aren’t without problems though. Sometimes the ink sticks to whatever is adjacent to the sheet (more paper or plastic protection wallet) and some of it gets left behind, making it difficult to read. This can happen in much less than five years, but more often than not it does not happen at all.

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Does anyone know the life of laser printers printing on quality paper? And does a laser copy ink stick like some inkjet copies do?

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Paper is still the best and most recommended medium for document preservation by the Library of Congress and other archives. I published and distributed some family books in the 1980s on regular copy paper, printed from an ordinary xerox machine, and they still look brand new. I expect they’ll last another 100 to 200 years. If I wish to make them archival, it wouldn’t be difficult to produce a copy that will last 500 to 1000 years.

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Share ~~~~~~ all that you have with others ~~~~ it will not be lost!

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