(+) Preserving Data: Separating Facts from Fiction

The following is a Plus Edition article, written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

I recently read an article in which the author claimed to describe data preservation techniques. He correctly pointed out that floppy disks, CD-ROM disks, magnetic media, flash drives, and other forms of digital storage all have limited lifespans. He then concluded by claiming that the only method of storing data for long-term preservation was to print everything on paper.

Wrong!

The article in question is an excellent example of examining the facts and drawing a wrong conclusion. In fact, if you want your genealogy information to be available 50 or 100 years from now, I’d suggest that using paper is one of the worst methods available. There are far better methods and, yes, they do involve digital media. The methods I will describe have already been used for more than 50 years by governmental agencies, corporations, and non-profits alike. These preservation methods are inexpensive and easy to accomplish, and they have worked for decades.

First, let’s examine paper and ink. Indeed, the paper used 100 or 150 years ago was excellent for long-term preservation. Most paper of the late 1800s and sometimes into the early 1900s was made without the use of acids. The materials used included wood fibers, rags, and various other materials. In short, the paper made without acid lasts for a long time.

Next, the paper of 100 or 150 years ago was rather absorbent, somewhat like an ink blotter or today’s paper towels. The ink was absorbed into the paper. Over time, the paper might deteriorate or be rubbed a bit, but the ink was saturated into the paper and remained easily readable.

By contrast, most of today’s paper contains acids used in modern papermaking processes. These acids will “eat” into the paper, breaking down the fibers, and will eventually destroy the paper.

Many specialty paper products are currently being made from synthetic fibers. In fact, synthetic fibers will make the paper last longer, although with other significant disadvantages.

Natural cellulose fibers have limited resistance to chemical attack and exposure to heat. Because synthetic fiber papers can be made resistant to strong acids, they are useful for many purposes. Paper can even be made from glass fiber, and such paper has great resistance to both heat and chemicals. Such paper is great for wrapping food that is to be heated in a microwave oven, but it is not designed for printing information that should last for decades. Printing on that paper may last only a few years.

The natural cellulose fibers of ordinary paper are hygroscopic; that is, they absorb water from the air and reach equilibrium, depending upon the relative humidity. Therefore, the moisture content of paper changes with atmospheric conditions. These changes cause swelling and shrinkage of fibers, accounting for the puckering and curling of papers. Synthetic fibers not subject to these changes can be used to produce dimensionally stable papers.

Unfortunately, paper that is resistant to water absorption is also resistant to ink absorption. Ink applied to the paper in the printing process sticks to the outside of the paper and is easily readable for a few years. However, the ink does not soak into the fibers in the same way as it does with acid-free paper that contains all natural fibers. The result is a printed page that stands up to rough usage, exposure to sunlight, and chemicals, but the printing on such paper fades within a few years.

Archival quality paper can be found today at higher prices. Indeed, if you wish to print something on your computer for long-term readability, you should be using this expensive paper. However, most people simply use the low-cost general-purpose copier and printer paper sold at office supply stores. You should not expect to keep that paper for 20 or 25 years.

The topic of paper’s life expectancy may not even be the most important issue.

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