What's the best media for long-term storage?

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Reader Karen Bauer ponders a question of longevity. She writes:

I enjoyed your article about maintaining media throughout the ages but I’d like to know something more. What is the best physical media to store archives on?

If we allow history to be our guide, I’d suggest stone tablets—able to withstand just about any natural catastrophe you throw at them, but murder when it comes to editing.

Silliness aside, there is a small lesson here. For certain kinds of media it’s helpful to have them in the most readable form possible. Printing text and images eliminates the translation issue—where a format has gone the way of the dodo and you don’t have the technology to read it. But this kind of storage is then subject to degradation from the elements—one good flood and your media is soggy toast. Plus, putting it in a purely physical form may require a lot of physical space to store it.

The truth is, apart from a purely physical representation of that media, we don’t have a perfect solution. Tape was once the storage medium of choice for those who needed loads of of capacity without a lot of fuss or bother. Turns out magnetic media of all kinds (floppy disks, for example) isn’t terribly robust and degrades over time.

Later, we were assured that CD and DVD media was the answer. The stuff was supposed to last for a century. Not so much. A variety of conditions can cause this media to break down or become unreadable. (Or it may have been flawed from the get-go.)


This is not the miracle media you were looking for.

And then we have the hard drive—spinning magnetic media. Should something cause a drive to stop spinning or the media to get scrambled, whatever was stored on the drive could be lost (or, at least, difficult to recover). And solid state storage has hardly proven to be the forever media we seek—it too can lose data or simply stop working.

Until that perfect solution appears we’ll have to muddle along as best we can. One path to successful muddling is creating redundant copies of your most important media. For instance, if you’ve just finished editing your video masterpiece, it makes sense to place copies of the raw data and edited version on a couple of hard drives you own (and store them in different locations), burn a couple of copies to Blu-ray media, and upload those same couple of copies to two or three different online storage services. I can’t imagine how you could more thoroughly cover your bets.

But you can’t stop there. You don’t want to be the person who stored their media on floppy disks, later moved it to Zip disks, and then figured they’d done everything necessary. You have to pay attention and be ready to take advantage of new storage and archival options as they appear.

Have a question of your own? Drop a line to mac911@macworld.com.

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