Digital Preservation for Future Genealogists

Updated on June 5, 2019
Simon Kravis profile image

Simon has been involved in software development since the days of paper tape. He has developed niche software for information management.

Digital Storage

Digital storage of anything is remarkably cheap and efficient: the price paid for this is the separation of the digital storage medium from the delivery mechanism, which is an application running on a separate device. Sound recording has lived with this since its inception, but the simplicity of the encoding (wobbles in a spiral groove, or magnetization on a wire or tape) meant that machines to decode the recording were fairly simple, even if the fidelity was poor. Anything that's written or printed on paper needs nothing other than light to make it accessible but digital storage of data requires a means to access the bits comprising the data and then an application running on a computing device and a visual or audio display to make the stored data accessible.

Curation

The term curation means "the selection and care of objects to be shown.." and is usually applied to collections of objects in galleries, libraries, museums, and archives. The term also applies to personal archives, and in most cases, the selection part of the process is usually omitted. This is because digital archives may contain tens of thousands of objects and effort to review all of these objects to determine interest to succeeding generations is enormous. It is far easier to say "I'll keep them all and leave the sorting out to those who want to look at them in the future". The low cost of storage encourages this attitude.

But do you really want to keep all 10 very similar images of all the people at the family reunion last year, and the backup copies of all these images? And will anyone apart from you know who they all were? Software can help. Finding exact copies of files (and optionally deleting unwanted copies) is straightforward for modern computers, and there are a number of applications for this purpose intended for PCs and Macs. A 2018 review covers many of them. One of the recommended products, Duplicate Cleaner Pro, includes the ability to detect similar but not identical photos and thus addresses the problem of identifying multiple views of the same scene. There are also a number of products specializing in the task of identifying similar, but not identical photos, which are reviewed here.

Recognizing different photos of the same people is now a commodity available as a web service. Many cloud image storage providers (such as Google Photos) offer it, but the annotations it provides may only be available within the cloud storage application. There are a number of desktop applications (Windows Photos, the now-defunct Picasa and Photo Gallery) which offer tagging of photos with names using facial recognition facilities. Picasa and Photo Gallery stored the results in file metadata where they can in principle be accessed by other applications and will persist with the image content. However, Windows Photos (for Win 10 only) appears to be the only current desktop application offering face recognition. However, the name information it generates from face recognition is not stored in file metadata, but in the Windows Photos database, so this data is not available outside Windows Photos.

Digital Preservation Advice

The field of digital preservation is mainly occupied by cultural institutions, but there are a number of books on personal digital archiving and preservation and even an annual conference on the topic.

A 2017 book on the topic is Melody Condron's "Managing the Digital You". It provides a comprehensive guide to organizing one's digital life from the perspective of a librarian and is excellent on organisational principles. Each chapter of the book contains references, often to primary sources, but the non-technical background of the author sometimes results in inapplicable studies and vested interests influencing the advice given, particularly in the area of storage media. These are discussed later in this article.

Cultural institutions including archiving in their briefs sometimes include advice to individuals on digital preservation, usually concerning file naming conventions and the necessity to keep multiple copies in different locations. Examples of such advice can be found the USA's Library of Congress, the University of Michigan, and Tufts University. None of the advice appears to address the contemporary issue of image display devices not providing access to file names or the difficulty of maintaining access to cloud storage.

Future-proofing

The rapid evolution of storage media and applications makes it difficult to preserve anything digital for more than a decade or so. There are a few applications addressing the issue of making digital data accessible over long time periods, mostly based on Linux. Perkeep is one of them and its web site summarises the issues it deals with, as well as describing software with similar objectives and some stories about online data loss. The web site notes that it is most likely to be useful to programmers or people with technical knowledge and warns users to expect bugs and unfinished features. A Feb 2019 posting on its blog warns users of diminishing resources, so unless you are keen to join the developer community (Perkeep is open-source) this is probably not an application worth using.

In the storage domain, floppy disks, Zip drives, and DAT tapes were once commonplace, but now retrieving any data on them is a specialized and costly activity. CDs and DVDs will probably go the same way - whilst Blu-Ray disks are backward-compatible with DVDs and CDs, there's no guarantee that future storage media will be.

The most 'future-proof' storage medium is probably the one with least electronics. Optical storage on a DVD disc meets that criteria. However, there are still choices to make - single layer or double layer, archival or standard discs. These are discussed in more detail later.

Format Recommendations

The best archival storage format is simply the most widely used which meets any technical requirements, as any migration necessary will be most readily available for these formats. For images, this will mean JPEG format, for videos, MP4, and sound recordings MP3. Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF are the two commonest document formats. From an archival perspective, Word is superior, but PDF is a fact of life and conversion from it to other formats relies on performing Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on each page, which can give poor results.

Three obsolete storage media: 3.5 inch floppy disk (Left), 5.25 inch floppy disk (Center), Zip Drive (Right)
Three obsolete storage media: 3.5 inch floppy disk (Left), 5.25 inch floppy disk (Center), Zip Drive (Right) | Source

Application Obsolescence

Word processing was one of the first computer applications. Once there was a slew of them– Wikipedia lists 63 in its historical section. Each had its own vociferous adherents. Now the choice is often Microsoft Word or Microsoft Word. To its credit, Word is able to read a wide variety of document formats, even though the capability was probably part of its plan to gain market share.

Word has also subsumed many of the capabilities of its rivals, to the extent that many of the features requested for Word are actually present already - the problem is that users can't find them. Although Word's capacity to read legacy formats was reduced with the introduction of Office 2007, it can still read Word Perfect files. Fortunately, older formats are generally unsophisticated and the task of extracting text, if not formatting, from obsolete word processing documents is not difficult.

For more applications with a smaller user base, such as video editing, backward compatibility may be considerably worse, with users having to maintain an elderly computer for the sole purpose of running a particular version of an application.

Media File Formats

The massive shakeout of storage formats and applications that has happened for word processing has not extended to media files (images, videos and audio recordings). Hundreds of formats are available but a few have become common.

Images

Image viewing is now an essential part of all operating systems and applications for this purpose are built into all modern devices. All of them can read files in JPEG format. JPEG format tends to be the standard for non-professional digital cameras, including those in mobile devices, as it includes a variable level of compression, and thus file size, which makes it attractive for designers. Professional cameras usually use the uncompressed RAW format.

As well as image formatting, consideration should be given to adding information about the image - who, when and where. This can be added as file metadata, or more robustly, added to the image pixels as a caption - see this TurboFuture article on the topic. For Windows users, Caption Pro is the recommended product. The web page All About Digital Photos - Genealogy deals with the issues of long-term preservation.

Videos

For videos, compressed storage is essential, especially as video resolution continues to increase. The compression factor is thus much more important than for images and constant evolution of algorithms for this mean that storage formats are constantly changing, with manufacturers of the same brand of video camera even changing their storage format between models. Devices capable of recording videos, such as mobile phones, can display videos they have recorded, but general purpose video display applications such as those built into Windows 10, will fail to decode some of the formats. The MPEG -4 or MP4 format is possibly the most widely used format, readable on nearly all systems. AVI is another popular format.

Audio

For sound recordings, the MP3 format has assumed a leading position amongst a host of options, some using compression and some not. The MP3 format is compressed, and for many years audiophiles regarded MP3 recordings as inferior as compression artifacts appear at low bit rates. However as bit rates have increased, artifacts have diminished to the point where the objections to the format are no longer valid. For home recordings of speech, MP3 recordings using a bit rate of 192 kbps provides more than adequate quality.

Document Formats

The best format for documents is a more complex question. The commonest formats are currently Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format), and Microsoft Word.

The PDF format touts itself as facilitating the presentation and exchange of documents reliably, independent of software, hardware, or operating system. It offers standards for engineering, printing and archival use, and has recently added digital signing to its capability and it can contain embedded images. The archival option excludes some features which may be difficult to maintain in future. Backed by a large company, the Adobe PDF Reader is widely available and free, and PDF files have become extremely common on Web sites and within organizations.

Despite being based on an open standard, unreadable PDF files are not uncommon, as a Google search for this phrase will indicate. Organizers of conferences receiving hundreds of PDF file will attest to this. There are many programs, which can write, edit and annotate PDF files and some of them may produce unreadable output files. Microsoft Word has finally acknowledged the prevalence of PDF and offers it as a native save format option. For unreadable PDF files, there is very little that can be done without specialist help.

It would be highly desirable to ensure that PDF files are readable before adding them to a consignment for the distant future, but at present, there does not seem to be any application for checking the accessibility of large numbers of PDF files as a batch.

Microsoft Word internal format went from a proprietary (although well known) binary format to Office Open XML format in 2007. This format used by all Microsoft Office authoring application documents with 4 letter extensions (eg .docx, .docm, .xlsx) is actually a Zip file containing a number of XML files describing the document. If you have a Word or Office authoring application document that you are unable to open or which renders incorrectly, the elements of it are far more accessible than they are in a PDF file and for this reason, it is preferable as an archive format. There is little advantage to be gained in saving documents created in Word to a PDF/A (Archive) format.

What you don't want to see when you open a PDF document
What you don't want to see when you open a PDF document | Source

What is Data Compression?

Data compression is a means of using fewer bits to represent digital data. Lossless compression means that the original data can be recovered with perfect fidelity. Lossy compression means that the original data cannot be recovered, but if the quality of the compression algorithm is good enough and the degree of compression is small enough, the loss of data is not perceptible or minimally perceptible. Lossy compression is used in the JPEG image format and the MP3 audio format.

Should I Scan Documents?

Scanning of documents and images for long-term preservation has many advantages. For color prints, prolonged exposure to light removes the red component of the color, resulting in the green-blue appearance of many color prints displayed in homes and offices. Scanning the original allows the recreation of the original print at modest cost when fading becomes apparent The colors may not be exactly the same as in the print as scanned, but the result will be much better than a faded original. There is even some scope for restoring missing red elements in the image.

Scanned images can also be shared easily and it may be that recipients' copies are still available when the images on the sender's computer are lost.

Scanners usually offer PDF format as an output option, as the format can accommodate images and a multi-page format. These PDF files have little or no electronic text and there is less likelihood of the files being unreadable than PDFs generated by other means.

To add captions to a series of scanned images, save each scan as a separate image and then either caption them with a dedicated captioning program such as Caption Pro and combine them into a single PDF file using a tool such as PDF Shaper (free for personal use) or import the images into Word and add the captions as text boxes. The Word document can be saved in PDF format if desired.

It should be noted that scanned text documents store the pages as images rather than electronic text. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is required to generate searchable text. Scanners may have this facility built-in and OCR is available from a number of applications running on desktops or as Web applications. The quality of OCR has improved greatly in recent years but high-quality source documents are generally required. If you want to ensure that your scanned PDF files are searchable, you'll need to run them through an OCR program.

Whether a PDF file contains searchable text or not can be determined by opening the PDF file with Acrobat Reader and clicking on a page. If all of it is highlighted, and the cursor changes to an arrow, the text exists only as an image and is not searchable as shown below:

Result of Clicking on a PDF File Containing Only an Image of Text
Result of Clicking on a PDF File Containing Only an Image of Text | Source

If the cursor changes to the text tool as shown below, and highlighting only occurs when the cursor is moved, then the document contains electronic text and can be searched.

Clicking on a  PDF File from a Scanner which has had Electronic Text Added by OCR
Clicking on a PDF File from a Scanner which has had Electronic Text Added by OCR | Source

Storage Media Options for Digital Data Archiving

In the pre-digital era, a shoebox or scrapbook provided a natural way of keeping family photos – additional information could be written on the back of photos or below them on a scrapbook page. Most families have a box of old photos, often dating from the early 20th century and the photos in it are often very well preserved, thanks to the excellent archival qualities of the paper used in that era and the gelatin silver process used for black and white printing. These prints may in better condition than color prints from 20 years ago, which frequently stick together in the envelopes they were received in.

Paper prints can have issues from insect attack, fungi, poor archival qualities of paper and glues, and the fading of color images. These can result in the degradation or even destruction of photos but generally, these are less serious than the total inaccessibility which can afflict stored digital data.

For today’s digital images, there are choices to be made for storage format and storage media. Whatever is chosen now is unlikely to be current in 20 years’ time – the challenge is to make it easy to migrate to whatever is current in the future. This approach is taken by government archival institutions, whose brief is usually to make records of Government decisions available in perpetuity. Their approach to preservation is to store at least two copies of each electronic document on a storage system isolated from the Internet in a secure environment. Copies are generally stored in different physical locations. At least one copy is left in its original state and another is updated to whatever format is current. The storage system is updated as required. These institutions have far more resources available than domestic users but the challenges facing both are similar.

How can I Change the Format of Multiple Digital Documents?

If you want to change the format of any digital document you want to keep to one with better archival properties, there are a number of tools that may be helpful. For images, the popular free image editing program IrfanView has batch rename facilities. For videos, there are a number of batch conversion programs available both as desktop and web applications. A 2018 review can be found at https://www.techradar.com/au/news/the-best-free-video-converter. A similar review of batch audio conversion tools can found at https://www.lifewire.com/free-audio-converter-software-programs-2622863.

Options for Storage Media

Despite their likely future obsolescence as media with higher data capacities and transfer rates become available, DVD disks, which encode data optically are not subject to the kinds of failures which can occur with rotating magnetic disk drives and as removable media, drivers are only needed for the devices which read them. DVD-R and DVD+R disks can only be written (or burned once). For the discs, the laser burning process changes the opacity of a dye layer above a reflective metal layer in a small pit to encode bit values.

For rewritable disks (DVD-RW, DRV+RW) the burning process changes the phase of metal alloy layer and data can be erased after being written. The archival qualities of all types of DVD are described in detail at http://www.cd-info.com/archiving/longevity/index.html. Dual Layer disks (DVD-R DL) have two recordable layers within each disk and offer storage capacities of 8.5 GBytes instead of the 4.7 GBytes for single layer disks. This additional capacity may be useful, but the blank discs are more expensive and problems with recording and playback are more common.

For recorded single-layer DVD-Rs a lifetime of up to 30 years is predicted, but with considerable variation between brands. Even premium brands marketed as 'Archival' quality may suffer from unreadability in the future. One Australian cultural institution has encountered unreadable archive-quality DVDs made by a reputable manufacturer in the 2000s. The sticky-shed syndrome affecting magnetic tape indicates that even reputable manufacturers may sometimes produce products with poor archival properties.

Rewritable DVDs are predicted to have a shorter lifetime, and repeated rewriting can also diminish their performance. This and the additional cost, make of write-once rather than rewritable DVD disks recommended for archival use. Whether the additional cost of using gold rather an aluminum as the reflective layer is justified is not clear as technological obsolescence is likely to affect them before physical degradation. Use of a reputable brand (such as Verbatim) and avoidance of 'No Name' brands is also recommended. To minimize degradation, disks should be kept out of ultra-violet light, handled carefully and not rewritten excessively. High humidity may also cause damage.

To allow early detection of any problems with DVD writing, any disks created should be read after creation.

Blu-ray disks are optical media with a higher storage capacity than DVDs (25 GBytes for single layer, up to 100 GBytes for multi-layer disks). Blu-ray readers and writers are not yet standard in PCs or laptops but may become so. They use a different material for encoding bits from DVDs, and manufacturers quote a 100+year life but the basis for these estimates is not clear.

External USB drives (using magnetic disks) offer multi-terabyte storage capacity at very low cost but these devices require driver software which needs to be compatible with the operating system of the computer they are attached to. Lack of driver software is a common reason for technological obsolescence of the devices. Mechanical and electronic failures can also give rise to the dreaded “USB device not recognized” message.

A State-of-the-Art 1 TByte Removable USB Drive From the Early 2000s for Which Drivers are no Longer Available. State-of-the Art now may Mean Inaccessible Later!
A State-of-the-Art 1 TByte Removable USB Drive From the Early 2000s for Which Drivers are no Longer Available. State-of-the Art now may Mean Inaccessible Later! | Source

Cloud storage is widely advertised as a convenient solution for backup and it can be used for archival storage. Cloud storage is commonly on magnetic disks in a remote data center (possibly in another country), where maintenance and updates are performed by skilled personnel. Many cloud providers (such as DropBox and OneDrive) offer a free storage quota of a number of gigabytes, with charges applying if the quota is exceeded. This may be adequate for photos but modern high-resolution video files can be very large.Other cloud providers only offer paid storage, but usually at a lower cost per gigabyte. Data transfer to and from the cloud may be a problem for large volumes if your monthly data quota is exceeded - upload and download speed may be drastically reduced or additional charges incurred.

One risk of cloud storage is the cloud provider going out of business or being taken over. Takeovers may result in increased charges, reduced quotas or even the loss of stored data. However, quotas may also be increased after a takeover, or charges reduced in the face of competition. Outages may result in access to archived data being delayed. There is some risk of the provider being taken offline for legal reasons - this happened in spectacular fashion to the MegaUpload service in 2012 for copyright violation, but there has been no comparable event since then.

Other hazards for cloud storage are technical failures, such as the loss of data stored with MySpace in 2019, which apparently arose during data migration.The rise and fall of MySpace (it was the most popular social media site between 2005 and 2008) is a salutary warning of the volatility of such services. Facebook is the social media giant today, but may not be so in the future.

Loss of web emails is more common, particularly when one service is absorbed into another. These losses attracts less attention, as users are advised to regularly download and back up their emails from these services.

Over the long term, loss of access credentials may result in difficulty in accessing cloud storage. It can be difficult to keep access credentials over long periods of time and password complexity requirements may increase.

A more serious problem is the cessation of payments for paid cloud storage. Most cloud storage providers will terminate access if regular payments are not made, and eventually delete stored data if the arrears are large enough. As anyone who has dealt with administering a deceased estate will know, it can be very difficult to establish the ongoing financial commitments of the deceased and the credentials for accessing cloud storage, especially if the death was unexpected. If regular payments are made via a credit card, and the credit card and email accounts are closed, email reminders about overdue fees will not be acted on. This may result in the deletion of archive data stored in the cloud.

Email

While the majority of email messages are ephemeral or of little interest to future generations, email may be included in the digital data which you wish to preserve.

If you use a local email client such as Microsoft Outlook, messages may be kept on the mail server or downloaded to a local archive file when mail is received or sent. The mail server capacity is usually limited, so downloading messages ensures that the mail server capacity is never exceeded. If you leave emails on the server, you will need to download them for archiving. Local archive files may be very large and may be updated each time a mail server is checked for new mail, making backup difficult, but they can be archived in the same way as photos and videos. Large email archive files are prone to corruption, and Microsoft supply a utility (scanpst.exe) for detecting and correcting errors in PST email archive files used by the Outlook email client. Other email clients may store individual messages as individual files.

If a web email service such as Gmail is used and accessed via web browser, the messages themselves are stored on a remote server as cloud storage, not on your local machine. This arrangement is highly convenient but again relies on your credentials for access. Changes in email addresses due to takeovers and mergers may result in loss of access to emails even if the credentials are valid.

The only insurance against loss of web emails is to regularly download your email archive from your web email provider and treat the downloaded file in the same way as your photos and videos. Gmail advises users to back up their messages regularly from their servers and provide instructions for doing this. The downloaded archive file will require a local email client to read messages.

Ransomware

All kinds of activities take place to try and earn money on the Internet - mostly legal and mostly selling goods and services. Services to facilitate selling (like PayPal) go to great lengths to inspire confidence in a transaction with someone or an organization quite unfamiliar to a buyer, quite possibly in another country. Illegal methods of obtaining money have also arisen - these can include fake invoices, fictitious blackmail and attempts to steal credentials by requesting you to go to a fake website (phishing). All of these require some level of gullibility on the part of the user in order to succeed.

Other malware does not require any action by a user - malicious programs to log all keystrokes (such as those used for Internet banking or financial services) and transmit them to a cyber-criminal may be inadvertently loaded by visiting a compromised or malicious web site or opening an email attachment. This is the reason that operating systems such as Windows make installation of any program so involved.

If malware succeeds in evading the detection systems now built into Windows and any other antivirus (or security) programs that you use, one of the most insidious threats is denial of access to your data unless a ransom is paid. This form of malware is known as ransomware and the combination of powerful encryption built into modern computers and the untraceable financial transactions provided by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have made it a very attractive proposition for cyber-criminals. Ransomware usually operates by encrypting data files, such as digital photos, and then charging a ransom to download an application to decrypt them. Most people with large collections of encrypted family photos and documents will simply pay up to regain access.

To minimise the chance of this happening, there are a few simple guidelines to follow:

  • Always keep your operating system updated. Many updates are plugging security holes which malware can exploit. It may be tedious to wait while updates run, but recent versions of Windows contain anti-malware software which tries to identify and quarantine malicious software by distinctive bit patterns present in malware. As new malware appears, the signatures are shared amongst the providers of software for detecting malware. This is one of the reasons why updates are so frequent.
  • If your operating system does not have anti-malware built in, use a 3rd party application for this purpose.
  • Be very suspicious of opening email attachments from an unknown source.
  • Back up frequently and keep your backup media disconnected from your computer. Ransomware will encrypt your backups if they are accessible from your computer. Your backup of un-encrypted data is about the only thing which will save you from ransomware. Sometimes the encryption can be broken by a security company wizard, which will then release a decryption application, but this does not always happen.


What Storage Media Should I use for Digital Data?

In her book "Managing the Digital You", Melody Condron discusses storage options for digital photos and makes the following assertions:

  • External hard drives have higher failure rates when not exercised regularly - ie when they are left in a box or closet, and should be replaced every three to five years.
  • Flash drives can last five to ten years
  • Optical storage media, such as CDs and DVDs are not good long-term storage media

The external drive lifetime estimate appears to come from reports on disk reliability produced by cloud service provider Backblaze, who reported in 2015 that 80% of drives in their storage lasted longer than 4 years, and that failure rates increased exponentially after this time. The disks whose performance was reported would have been spinning continuously. Estimates of the lifetime for disks which are not continuously supplied with power are not given but would be expected to be far longer. How long magnetic USB disks last when kept mostly unpowered is an occasionally asked question in technical forums. One response to such a question in SuperUser observes that the magnetization in the disk platters decays over time with a half-life of about 70 years, which will render the disk unreadable and suggests rewriting the data every few years, but another response disagrees with this. Other responses give personal experiences with long-term storage issues. The requirement to 'exercise' external magnetic and solid-state drives is discussed here. The author recommends occasionally powering on magnetic drives to avoid mechanical problems but does not suggest rewriting the data.

The lifetime of flash (solid state) storage devices when kept unpowered is a very complex issue, due to the many different implementations of the storage technology. An article from test equipment manufacturer National Instruments discusses many of the issues. Common features of all implementations are

  • A limited number of read-write cycles before the error rate increases.
  • The unpowered storage life of devices using solid-state memory decreases as storage temperature increases.

As the capacity of solid-state drives approaches that of magnetic drives, their small size and convenience make them an attractive option for long-term storage. SSD replacements for magnetic drives generally have higher-quality storage than the 'thumb drives' which are now widely available. There does not seem to be any reliable estimate of device lifetime, either in the powered or unpowered state, but there is a multitude of anecdotal evidence, varying from 10 years downwards.

A further problem with thumb drives is that because they are small, cheap and often unlabelled, they may be perceived as having no value by people managing a deceased estate and discarded as a result.

The basis of Condron deeming optical disks unsuitable for long term storage appears to be a NIST report analyzing error rates in optical disks exposed to harsh conditions, but the abstract states: "Initial results show that high-quality optical media have very stable characteristics and may be suitable for long-term storage applications. However, results also indicate that significant differences exist in the stability of recordable optical media from different manufacturers." The conditions under which the disks were tested would seldom be found in a domestic archive environment.

There are many references about the care of optical media, such as Mueller (2011) who observed that scratches on the label side are a much greater problem than on the other side, where they can be polished out in many cases. Special pens should be used to write on the label side of discs, as solvents may damage the lacquer layer. Another useful guide to optical disk care is provided by the Council on Library and Information Resources who assert that "CDs and DVDs can be reliable for many decades with proper handling".

My Recommendations

For modest storage volumes that can be accommodated on a manageable number of DVD discs, this probably represents this best local storage option for domestic users, as long as DVD disc reading and writing is readily available. The custodians of the discs need to be aware of their potential obsolescence and be prepared to copy data onto a different storage medium if necessary. DVD disks will generally survive immersion in dirty water in case of flooding, as the data is stored in reflective pits inside the polycarbonate body of the disk. However, they will be destroyed by fire, unless they are kept in a fireproof safe. High levels of humidity and dust may also affect readability. Risks of manufacturer-based problems (such as the sticky-shed syndrome affecting magnetic tape) can be mitigated by duplication using disks from a different manufacturer.

If you have terabytes of data, then a removable USB drive with a magnetic disk may be the best storage option. Use of a popular brand and type makes it likely that drivers will be available in future operating systems. Only have the drive connected to the computer while copying data, as permanent connection means that ransomware on the host computer may be able to encrypt your archive data.

Removable USB drives using magnetic disks will not work after immersion in water, as they have internal moving parts and circuitry, but data on them is generally recoverable by specialist service providers. Like DVDs, removable drives will be destroyed by fire unless they are kept in a fireproof safe. Data on fire-damaged USB drives may be recoverable, depending on the degree of damage.

Cloud storage provides geographic diversity and insurance against physical destruction of storage media, as can happen through fire or flood. Its use, in conjunction with storage on physical media probably represents the best long-term solution for domestic users, but careful storage of access credentials is required, together with robust payment arrangements if paid cloud storage is used. Google provides for the download of stored data via a trusted email address after a period of account inactivity using its Inactive Account Manager, and Facebook has similar options available as Legacy controls. Physical objects, such as storage media, are much more easily kept over a period of decades than intangible items such as credentials.

The diminishing size of computing devices and the increasing use of cloud storage means that some devices have no means of accessing external storage of any kind. All access is expected to be via the cloud. DVD/CD drives have been the first disappear from laptops and USB ports may be next to go.

Storing any data on a cloud platform does mean that you lose absolute control of it: your data can be accessed by cloud storage staff and potentially by Government agencies or hackers. Whilst this scenario is not particularly threatening for family photos, there may be circumstances in which you don't want anyone you haven't authorized to see your data. In this situation, avoid using cloud storage, or consider using encryption, but remember to make the decryption details available to anyone who might need it.

Cloud storage is generally very reliable, but access to it depends on network connectivity, which may be less reliable. Downdetector.com monitors the status of many online services including cloud providers OneDrive, Google Drive and DropBox. Their results may guide your choice of cloud storage provider.

You can find a description of one digital preservation specialist's personal archiving arrangements here. However, the average user would not have such a high level of technical expertise. Tech-savvy users may take the institutional approach of only keeping removable drives for a period of time (such as 5 years) and then copying the content onto new drives. This approach means that the lifetime of the removable disk drive is not an issue. However, looking at a multi-decade timespan, the drives may become the property of someone less tech-savvy who does not follow the copying protocol, in which case drive lifetime becomes an issue again.

Help! I Can't Read From my Storage Device.

DVD reading and writing is usually the first functionality to be lost from laptops due to the mechanical demands of tracking the very narrow data strips on optical storage media by the DVD drive, and the restricted space for the drive available in a laptop. If DVDs are unable to be read, this may be the cause rather than DVD degradation. Try reading on another machine or purchase an external DVD drive which can be connected via a USB port.

For other problems, type your question into a Web search engine and you may find a way of dealing with your problem. If you don’t find one or don’t feel able or willing to do what it suggests, search for “data recovery”. Companies specializing in this area may be able to help, but their services aren’t cheap. If your data is on a medium no longer widely supported (such as a floppy disc or Zip drive at present) you will probably be able to find a company which will copy data onto a device or medium that you can read from.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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