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Nothing Lasts Forever

February 8, 2017

destroyed CDs

A few years ago, I heard a story on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about how CDs can deteriorate in just a few years — leaving the stored data on CDs vulnerable to disappearing. The featured guest was Sam Brylawski, editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara, and coauthor of the study “The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age.” (If you want to read the entire study, you can download it here as a PDF.)

Many of us save files on CDs to keep them safe and store them for future use (or simply for posterity). Imagine how disappointed — or even downright devastated — you would be if you couldn’t retrieve those files because the CD oxidized, and you had no other copies in another format. Gone. Forever. It’s a scary thought!

I particularly liked one of the preservationist’s recommendations in the Talk of the Nation interview, the LOCKSS technique: Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. At BIS, we recommend 2+1 Backup: keeping two copies of an important file in one medium (paper, digital, or film—clay tables fell into disuse long ago, and as a practical matter, microforms and other film media also passé), plus a third copy in another medium. In most cases, paper serves as a backup for digital and vice versa.

Example: If you have two CD copies of irreplaceable digital data, you should have another copy printed out. And make sure all three copies are not kept in the same place. Store them in separate, protected locations, so if the worst happens, you can be reasonably sure at least one of the copies will survive.

Here’s another consideration for all that information you have stored on computers or discs. Remember when floppy discs were actually big and floppy? Anyone who wanted to retrieve data from those original floppies today would certainly be out of luck.

Eventually, all computer hardware and software become obsolete. That’s why you should regularly copy forward your important files — upgrade to the new version of the software that created it and store the updated file on your new hardware. Keep things current so you don’t lose key records as technology advances.

Your Turn: Have you ever discovered that you lost a record or file because of how it was saved? What happened, and what lesson(s) did you learn? I’d love to hear your stories.