Digital Legacy

It’s interesting to think about the future.

I’ve been going through my wife’s family’s photos and history and what I have of my own family, and trying to get good digital copies of everything. I’ve scanned stacks of photos, and I’m trying to do a good job of creating a high quality digital archive of the boxes of papers and photos we have.

We’ve only had film cameras for a few generations – I don’t think anyone has a photograph of their great great great grandfather. We’ve gone from no photography to rudimentary film photography to abandoning film for digital in relatively just a few years.

Before film, there were painted portraits, but those don’t capture the spirit of the times the way photographs do, especially the sort of casual picture taking that happens with digital cameras, where there’s no incremental cost for each picture taken.

Right now we’re in a transition, from paper to digital. It’s important to realize the importance of the work we’re doing digitizing the past and preserving it for the future.

A shoebox full of photographs offers instant access to one person in the same physical location. A shoebox full of photographs isn’t going to suddenly die the way a hard disk can, so those photographs will be around as long as we don’t lose them and as long as they don’t become damaged.

On the other hand, you can’t back up a shoebox full of photographs. If your house burns down, you’ve lost them. With a digital archive, you can keep a stack of DVDs in a desk drawer at work and thus have an offsite backup in case of disaster. A hard drive can die, but the backup mitigates that risk. You can also have family members far and wide viewing your photographs – although the security risk associated with sharing photos on the Internet is greater than that of the shoebox (since someone would need to break into your house and steal the shoebox to access those pictures).

Fortunately, digital storage capacity is growing faster than I’m consuming it – with photos anyway. I expect I’ll always be able to have my digital photo library stored on two different hard disks in the house, and keep an offsite backup somewhere. I’m not done setting all this up yet, but it’s an ongoing project.

Video is a tougher one.

My camera creates MPEG-2 videos, which look great but take a lot of space. Burning them to DVDs works, but then there are more problems than with the box of photos. Not only can I lose the DVDs but they can easily become damaged, and they naturally rot to the point that they will be unplayable within probably 10 years.

My solution to this is to keep a lower resolution copy on the computer and then burn a higher quality version out to DVD. This lets me play it whenever I want, but still keep a high resolution version. I’ll probably try to remember to refresh the DVDs every 5 years or so by copying them onto whatever media is current at the time (like consolidating 5 DVDs onto one HD-DVD once that becomes ubiquitous).

We’re going to have a new child in just over a month. Someday I assume this child is going to be better with technology than I am, and it’s that person that I’m preparing this digital legacy for. I hope they like it.