For now, you're on your own in preserving that family data

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August 05, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

A FEW DAYS after our firstborn arrived in 1979, I fulfilled my fatherly duty and bought a Super-8 movie camera. For the next five or six years, I used it to record the milestones of our family's life.

When VHS camcorders became affordable, I switched to videotape for birthday parties, vacations, family gatherings, Little League games, high school wrestling matches, and later, college football and rugby games. I kept reminding myself that someday I really should convert those old movies of our kids - not to mention those reels of old 8 mm film that our fathers shot of us back in the 1950s and 1960s. But I still haven't gotten around to it.

Now that digital movies are in the consumer realm, I keep telling myself that I have to convert those old VHS tapes and Kodachrome movies to DVD. But that seems like a lot of hassle.

And so, in various closets, drawers and storage crannies, I have boxes full of old film reels, videotapes, uncataloged slides and film negatives, not to mention a carton of ancient reel-to-reel music tapes that my father-in-law collected 40 years ago, plus dozens of vinyl record albums from the days before compact discs.

Somewhere in the house I still have slide and movie projectors, both of which worked the last time I used them - when was it, back in the 1980s? But the reel-to-reel tape deck died years ago, before the kids destroyed the last needle on that vinyl turntable and I switched to cassettes, and then CDs.

This sorry state of affairs has generated minor pangs of guilt, but I've managed to live with them. Then the government stepped in this week and turned up the guilt-o-meter again.

The good folks at the National Archives announced a pair of $10 million contracts to develop the Electronic Records Archives, which the agency described as "a revolutionary system that will capture electronic information, regardless of its format, save it permanently, and make it accessible on whatever hardware or software is currently in use."

That's obviously important, and I thought I'd been doing pretty well in this regard. After all, I back up my digital photos, music, correspondence and financial records to a second computer, and from time to time, on CDs.

But in announcing the archives' initiative, L. Reynolds Cahoon, the agency's assistant archivist for human resources and information services, made this cheery prediction: "Just as eight-track tapes, 80 column punch cards and 5 1/4 -inch floppy disks have become obsolete and the information on them inaccessible, so, too, will the information on your zip drives, thumb drives and DVDs in just a few years."

So even before I can digitize all those old analog movies, videos and slides, I have to worry that my digital copies will be out of date. Thanks a lot, pal.

But I shouldn't be so anxious to shoot the messenger. The problem of preserving digital information is one that affects us at every level - government, business and individuals.

Consider the photograph. As an art and science, photography is about 150 years old. Remarkably, many early photographs are still with us and it's quite possible to make prints from negatives that are more than a century old. With a little care, negatives and prints can easily outlive their originators.

The problem is that a traditional photograph exists only within its medium. Lose a negative in a fire and flood and you've lost the ability to reproduce the image. Making a copy of a negative - which almost no one does - results in an image well below the original's quality.

A digital image records an image as binary ones and zeros. Those numbers can be recorded anywhere - on a camera's memory card, on a computer's hard drive, or on a CD.

With the proper hardware and software, the original image can be re-created anywhere, at any time - and the copy will have the same quality as the original. In effect, digital photography, video, music and digital storage of text have divorced the medium from the message, as Marshall McLuhan might have said.

This provides us with a wide variety of choices for storing our records and our memories. But because digital records are largely out of sight, they're also out of mind. And the national archivists are reminding us that this is a dangerous lapse.

We know far less about the reliability of digital media than we do of paper, film, magnetic tape and other traditional storage materials. As Cahoon says, it's hard to find a computer with 5 1/4 -inch disk drives today - so what happens to information stored on 5 1/4 -inch disks? I have plenty of them. Nor can anyone reliably predict the life of a CD - or whether in 20 years the only machines that can read them will be antiques.

There's no universal solution to this problem - so for the time being we're on our own. That means making backups of our photos, music, correspondence, financial records on CDs or DVDs. And when we see a new technology starting to replace the CD, we have to remember to transfer all that material to the new medium.

And yes, it's a pain, so we should wish the archives well in developing a universal backup system for digital information - perhaps one with commercial and consumer spinoffs.

Speaking whereof, if you've ever wanted a really close look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, you can do it at home now. The National Archives' "Charters of Freedom" Web page is a superbly crafted online exhibit that offers ultrahigh-resolution, downloadable images of our founding documents.

These 5- to 7-megapixel photos are remarkably clear and detailed, down to the last crinkle, crease and quill stroke - and unfortunately, they show just how badly the originals have faded.

But it's still a thrill to see the cornerstone documents of modern democracy up close - far closer than any tourist can hope to get in person. They're viewable with any standard photo-editing or viewing program. Surf to www.archives.gov.

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