Forget Paper. Forget Hard Drives. Forget CD and DVD Disks. Forget Most Everything Else. For Long-Term preservation, Use a Piece of Glass.

Genealogists frequently discuss the best ways to preserve family tree information so that it can be read and perhaps updated by future generations. Some people plan to save everything on paper so that “it won’t become obsolete.” Of course, they forget that paper is probably the most fragile storage medium of all, easily destroyed by water, humidity, acids in the paper, fire, insects, and a variety of other dangers.

Probably the greatest threat to data storage on paper is simply fading ink. Most paper prepared with today’s paper and today’s inks will be unreadable within a century, perhaps much less time than that.

Floppy disks were the storage medium of choice for some number of years ago but have since fallen into disfavor. The magnetic information of floppy disks doesn’t last forever. Even worse, floppy disk drives are rapidly disappearing. Most of us doubt that there will be any floppy disk drives available to read the disks within the next decade or two.

A better(?) solution is to record the information on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM disks but that has similar problems. These plastic disks also do not last forever, especially those that are recorded individually on today’s computers.

(CD and DVD disks manufactured in factories do preserve the information for many more years than those made individually on a home computer. You can read my earlier articles at https://blog.eogn.com/2016/05/24/your-cd-collection-is-dying/ and at https://blog.eogn.com/2017/07/31/the-demise-of-cds-and-dvds/ for more information.)

Several newer technologies hold a lot of promise but are not yet in widespread use. One that looks especially promising is a new storage medium optimized for what industry insiders like to call cold data — the type of data you likely won’t need to access for months, years, or even decades. It’s data that doesn’t need to sit on a server, ready to be used 24/7, but that is kept in a vault, away from anything that could corrupt it.

The new technology is called “Project Silica.”

A piece of silica glass measuring 7.5 centimeters (3 inches) by 7.5 centimeters (3 inches) by 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) can store at least 75.6 gigabytes of data, photographs, music, or even high-resolution videos.

The movie industry has many thousands of films that need preservation but also keep bumping up the limitations of today’s storage methods as do genealogists. For instance, the Warner Brothers studio has been safekeeping original celluloid film reels starting in the 1920s, audio from 1940s radio shows and much more, for decades. Think about classics like “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz” or “Looney Tunes” cartoons: how can they be preserved?

Together, Warner Brothers and Microsoft have developed a solution to preserve those original assets in perpetuity. The new technology is first being used to store a copy of the 1978 movie “Superman” on a small glass disc about the size of a coaster. If successful, the same technology should be useful for storing family history information as well as for thousands of other uses.

You can read more about this technology in an article by Janko Roettgers in the Variety web site at: https://variety.com/2019/film/news/project-silica-superman-warner-bros-microsoft-1203390459/.

Of course, two present limitations might remain even in the future:

1. Will any devices capable of reading “Project Silica” glass still be available a few thousand years from now?

2. Will anyone a few thousand years from now have any interest in a very old “Superman” movie or even Looney Tunes?

My thanks to newsletter reader Pierre Clouthier for telling me about this latest technology.

8 Comments

If one is just printing black on paper and uses pigment ink it will not fade. it will outlast the paper.

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    Would you provide more information re: printing with pigment ink. Is this ink available for use in home printers?
    Thank you.

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And when the glass breaks?

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    —> And when the glass breaks?

    Exactly the same thing as happens when a hard drive fails or a magnetic disk loses magnetism or a piece of paper is damaged or destroyed by any number of problems: it becomes useless.

    That is the reason why I have written many times about the reason you want to ALWAYS create two (or preferably more than two) copies of everything that is important to you and then store them in two (or preferably more than two) locations. In fact, I store my important files in three or four locations and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people store things in ten or more locations. Those widely-separated multiple copies won’t all go bad at once if you have a good backup plan.

    Regardless of the storage media used, every manager of every significant data center never depends upon only one copy of anything that is important. Individual consumers can learn a lot from data center managers.

    L.O.C.K.S.S. – “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe”

    See https://duckduckgo.com/?ratb=c&q=site%3Aeogn.com+%22L.O.C.K.S.S.%22&t=brave&ia=web for a list of my past articles that mention the need for L.O.C.K.S.S. – “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe”.

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In reply to the question about black pigments, it is something you have to check on before you buy your inkjet printer. Most low cost printers use dyes rather than pigments. Even colored pigments may fade with time but the black will not.

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In practical terms, the media lasts only as long as the machines to read it continue to exist. I’ve been down that road with a certain optical drive maker. Superior to CD/DVD, but they started discontinuing older drives and the new ones weren’t backward compatible. But I can walk into any Best Buy and walk out with a DVD reader that will work with a modern computer.

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The corundum/sapphire discs you were posting about a few months ago sound a bit better for documents and still images, if the prices are compatible. They would be more breakage resistant and images sounded as though they could be read by microfiche machines or any other arrangement of light source and strong magnifier, so obsolete software or antiquated players are nonissues.

It sounds as if both storage media would be about as near-impossible as microfilm to hack and tamper with a stored image.

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