No ‘Maybe’: Your digital memories ARE toast.

Hate to be blunt, but this is why I’m glad to see that the archive library at Union Station collects books, papers, actual hard copies, of as much as it can.


So does Weber State University’s Special Collections (click) library.


I keep beating this drum, but have to admit not many pay attention. I can’t blame them — the digital world is so darn easy, so quick, so simple, even I find myself falling into the trap.


Take a digital pic, plug camera into computer, there you are! No chemicals to mix, no negatives to dry, no prints to make. Point, snap, done!


And gone.


Exhibit one: An article in the New York Times today on the cost of storing movies after they are made and shown.  If they shoot the film on — duh — film, it can be put into a big can, sent to a salt mine in Kansas and stored away for a bit more than $1,000 a year. Easy.


The digital stuff they’re shooting today?  The cost is more than $200,000 a year. Yes, you read that right. Here’s the article (click).


The reason is that film technology is pretty solid. You have a physical item, a piece of film, and all you have to do is keep it from getting wet or too hot. Other than that, it just sits there. The technology to view it later is mechanical and very simple to reproduce. A hundred years from now someone who found a movie in a can could, with the aid of some simple mechanical and optical work, look at that film again.


Digital is another matter. The software to view it is constantly changing, so the file has to be constantly changed and migrated to keep up. Every time you do that you lose something.


The physical objects used to store those digital files — CDs or hard drives or even flash drives — are subject to corrosion or corruption or simply quitting to work. Much of that $200,000-plus is simply the constant maintenance and monitoring of the whole shebang. This is why NASA can no longer read all the data sent back by the original Viking satellite.


Exhibit Two: I saw this in action Wednesday while dropping some film off for developing at Imaging Depot — a lady was there with a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk that had text she wanted opened up and printed out. Her computer no longer takes that size of disk, she wasn’t even sure what software program was used to write the text, but it’s stuff she hopes to keep.


The clerk was calling around, looking for someone with a computer that still had a floppy drive that worked. He found one, but it will cost the woman some money, and time, and she’s lucky she did it now. Those computers are no longer made.


Interestingly, shortly after that I saw a computer with a disk drive at the Salvation Army thrift store for $6. Dunno if it works, but it’s a start. I have an external USB floppy drive here at home too, but how long will USB drives be around? Like VHS tape players, you better buy one now (click).


My sister, who works as a conservation scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute (click), says the Smithsonian has a study going on to figure out how to get through this digital revolution without losing a whole century of art, writing, images and everything else.


If you want it to last, she says, put it on paper or carve it into stone. Papyrus, she said, is even better.Paper sounds pretty flimsy, but I have newspapers printed in Utah in the 1850s on rag bond paper (trees were scarce then) that look like new.


Which is why the Union Station, WSU and other archives are saving all the paper they can. Paper lasts and, when you consider all the hassle of digital, is much much cheaper to store.