Memories on Media

People like me, possibly a large group of people, document and enhance our lives by collecting text, sounds, images, and other software. We share a difficult problem with the commercial media organizations: how to preserve and provide access to media archives.

Without sound organization, one is unlikely to easily discover what an archive contains. Even if the content is known, the physical media may have aged out and lost some or likely all of its content. Even if content is preserved, it may be difficult to find hardware capable of accessing it. Available time and cost budgets may enable preserving only part of an archive, so triage may be necessary.

Time is of the essence, both timely preservation, and available time budget for preservation. Once the durability of the media has been exceeded, one’s archive can be lost entirely. Access to old hardware in working condition becomes iffy when too much time has passed. A preservation plan will probably include copying from the old media to the latest digital media, with required transcoding performed periodically when old technologies are obsoleted by new ones.

For my purposes, analog archives (film and tapes) have largely been digitized, and computers used to transcode analog media and obsolete digital media into CD and DVD formats. My archival data currently resides on hard drives augmented by long-lived digital media of CDs and DVDs. These are backed-up by duplicate copies, and perhaps in the future by long-term back-up storage in the cloud. The computer is the main tool for personal archive processing; they are also being obsoleted every five years or so.

My archive has been associated with Macintosh computers since the mid-1980s. Fortunately Apple hung in there until the second coming of Jobs, because I don’t like learning new tools. Apple is a technology company, and all such providers force their users to move ahead and leave the old stuff in the dust. For many, this is not a problem, but an excuse to buy a new toy. But those of us with archives can end up with stuff that we can no longer access or run due to missing software and missing hardware interfaces.

For instance, I have an old ADB device for analog signal input to the computer, controlled by a Hypercard stack. I have old software that was great for its time and unique still, that I can no longer access. I have old archives of data stored on Mac-format floppies that I can no longer access. I have old SCSI hardware that I keep for historical interest.

Since I am into history and continuity, I decided a bridge machine would be needed that would allow me to run old and new. I discovered a 300MHz Beige G3 with 15″ monitor on Craigslist for $20 and couldn’t resist. It is the last Mac to use the Old World ROM, but will still run OS X. It comes with internal Mac floppy and ZIP drive, supports the old ADB and Apple serial I/O, supports SCSI, and has PCI cards for USB and Firewire. It still runs like a champ. I added an old 250Gb EIDE hard drive I had on hand (will only see the first 128Gb though), and maxed the DRAM to 768Mb so it will run Jaguar with aplomb.

I installed it on the work bench in the garage and access it from my desktop iMac. I have already captured my old floppy data; it is amazing the disks were still readable after over 20 years in the attic. I can now handle anything Apple has supported over its history, a good feeling. It came with Mac OS X 10.1. I have it running OS 10.3 Panther and it also runs Mac OS 9 natively, so I can use my old software when I am in a nostalgic mood.

Other media in my archive are a large box of 35mm film slides, a collection of over 100 DAT audio tapes, a smaller number of memorable vinyl audio recordings that are not available on CD, and home videos recorded onto VHS, Hi-8, and miniDV tapes.

I have a high-quality Nikon slide scanner and have scanned many of the 35mm slides. I have a record player with USB connectivity for digitizing my record collection to CD (with some limited software capability to remove large pops and clicks). I have a VHS player and miniDV player that can input to my AVR for digitizing video to DVD; I’ve done a few. I need to obtain a working Hi-8 player to digitize other home movies, since my videocam no longer works. I have a working DAT player and have migrated most of my DAT audio tape to CD. Fortunately, my laserdisc movies are all available on DVD now, so I was just able to chuck the whole, heavy lot of them.

I have never experienced a loss of data from a professionally-created CD or DVD. They have a life expectancy of 30-100 years, depending upon whom one consults, so it will not happen in my lifetime. Ultimately, digital streaming access will obsolete these physical media as the world moves to pay-as-you-go computer-based playing of compressed media. But there may be enough people who enjoy non-compressed media to keep support for these physical media viable for another 30 years. And the players are so ubiquitous now that some will surely survive through the first non-CD generation or two.

The CDs and DVDs we burn on our computers are of questionable durability. Here, the quality of the blank is the main issue, so no expense should be spared to use quality media for archival purposes. CD-ROM is thought to be a better archival media than CD-RW. Multiple copies provide additional assurance that data will survive.

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