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?