To guarantee that your crucial digital documents, photographs, movies, and other information will remain secure and readable/viewable decades from now, use the most acceptable media and file formats.
It's easier than ever to make sure that copies of your most important records, documents, photos, videos, and other personal data will still be readable, viewable, and playable long after the hardware and software you used to create them have died.
The four keys to safe data archiving are to choose file formats that won't become outdated, use storage media that won't break down or become inaccessible, make multiple copies that are kept in different places, and check your archived data regularly to make sure it's still readable.
Avoid relying on obsolete data types.
Most of the files you want to archive are probably in proprietary formats, like.doc,.xls, and.ppt for Microsoft Office's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Even though a lot of software and services let you read and edit Office files without the Office app that made them, these formats will go away at some point.
Even if you archive files in their original proprietary formats, saving another copy of the files in an open-standard format is a good idea. This is how the open-source Archivematica data-archive service works. It keeps the original file format and changes the files to the suitable "access" and "preservation" formats.
For example, Archivematica's media-type preservation plans change.doc,.rtf, and.wpd word processing files to the XML-based Open Document Format (ODF) for preservation and Adobe's PDF for viewing. In the same way, the system saves raster image files with the extensions. BMP,.jpg,.jp2,.png,.gif,.psd,.tga, and. Tiff as uncompressed TIFFs for storage and as JPEGs for viewing.
The Archivematica system is still in development, but you can download the free alpha version of the archiving software to use on a virtual appliance, Live USB key, or Live DVD.
To sum up, the best way to ensure your archived files can be read and still have their original formatting and other features is to save them in their native format and at least one other generic, open format. This lets you open, view, and edit the files in the program that made them if that program is available. You can still get to the data more straightforwardly if it isn't.
Find a way to store things that has legs.
You're not the only one who wants to know how long the data on your CDs and DVDs will last. Even the experts can't agree on how long optical and magnetic tapes and disks are expected to survive.
Most people agree that CD-Rs should last 30–50 years, DVD-Rs should stay less, and CD-RWs and DVD-RWs should last even more minor. In the same way, you can expect tapes and hard drives to be readable for 10 to 30 years, while portable disks, USB thumb drives, and other solid-state storage devices may only last for half as long if that.
But this is just a bunch of numbers. Who wants to put their essential information in the hands of chance? The truth is that any form of storage can fail at any time. Because of this, you should store data on more than one medium and regularly check your archives for problems.
Two of my favorite ways to store archival materials are paper and online, both old and new. Even though printing your archives isn't good for the environment, it's hard to beat how long paper records should last if they're stored properly. Of course, finding specific files in a paper archive can be challenging, and it's not easy to convert paper records.
Online data archives are a good choice if you want to be able to find what you need quickly and easily. With services like SpiderOak and Microsoft's SkyDrive, it's easy to store copies of your essential files in the cloud, where they can be accessed from any browser.
Multiple archives, several locations
Two rules of safe storage are broken when you store your data archive online: you don't have physical access to the hardware where the files are stored, and you're at the mercy of your service. If the service goes out of concern, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to get your data back. You have to trust that the service can keep its storage servers running and make backups.
The important thing is not to put all of your archives in one basket. When archiving essential data, use a mix of media and file types to make it more likely that the data will be accessible for a long time. And as new ways to store archives come out and are shown to be helpful, move your archive to one of those formats.
Another important rule for archival storage is that you should always keep at least one copy of your archived data somewhere other than your home or office. Online storage comes in handy in this situation.
Plan regular checks of your archives.
I've spent a lot of my free time over the last couple of years using the free audio software Audacity to convert a few thousand songs on several hundred audio cassettes to MP3s. Some tapes were made as far back as the mid-1970s, but most were made in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Most store-bought tapes in my collection no longer work, but the homemade recordings work much better. A videotape made in 1976 spent a lot of its early life in my old VW bug, where it was exposed to both cold and scorching heat, but the songs on it sounded brand new when I turned them into digital files.
You can't rely on luck regarding your vital digital files. Get into the habit of opening a few files from your different archives daily. If you can't get to them, find one of your other backups and use it to make a new copy of the files you know are good. After all, if you want to keep something, you should keep it well.