Friday, August 28, 2015

Preservation at Home - Digital Materials

This week I’d like to go over the issue that has been going through your minds for the past few years—“How am I ever going to manage this increasing amount of digital material?”  Perhaps you are an avid photographer in your spare time, or have an extensive music collection, in both cases you are probably dealing with a level of complexity and density previously unheard of in the analog world for mere individuals.  Have you ever had a drive crash and you’ve lost old college papers, images of friends and family or an expensive number of iTunes movies and music?  It’s like there was a small, strictly contained fire—it didn’t take everything, but it took a lot.  AS easy as it is to make these objects, it is the same level of easy to watch them disintegrate into a million 1’s and 0’s if not properly managed, and that will be the key word for you today – “manage.”  Because that is what this stuff takes.

Preserving digital materials in the professional world requires checksums, migrations, media analysis and format analysis.  The systems and tools developed to assist with these processes are multitude and each covers only a small slice of the overall pie, leaving archivists scrambling to find services or programs to fill in the blanks.  Today I am going to discuss what you can do at home to help preserve this insane glut of data we are all producing.

Optical media - unstable format for digital materials
Back it up! 
In 2008 I lost roughly 2 years of photographs taken with what was then my new DSLR—images of learning to use the camera, photos of my wife, our walks, vacations, etc.—all gone with a failed hard drive.  Recovering the data was not possible due to a number of factors and thus I was left with a substantial hole in my photographed existence.  All because I had neglected my regular back up process.  This is one unavoidable cost of managing your electronic existence—a 1 TB drive can cost between 80-100 USD depending on the design.  You can get slower ones that use the USB cable to power the drive, or ones that have a cable for power and one for transfer.  Back up frequently.  Use the installed program, or one that is offered by a vendor, or go it alone and painstakingly only add files to your back up that are new (my method, but I manage in detail).  Once you’ve started down this path you’ll begin to see the intense complexity that comes from having electronic assets, sure these things are easy to use, send, etc. but they take up mental space and require searching tools to find if you are in any way disorganized.

Keep things organized!
Digital material has a way of becoming quickly disorganized.  If you are focused on your own materials, or working with a family, please take a few minutes to discuss how to organize what you’ve already got.  I start with big categories and create additional sub-categories if needed.  For instance, our home drive has several top-level folders like “MOVIES,” “MUSIC,” and “DOCUMENTS.”  We add to those folders whenever we finish a project (like taxes), upload a cache of images (photos from a trip) or when I get several albums that need redundancy.  At these points I create a folder (for example, “St. Helens 2015”) and copy that to all 3 of my back up drives.  Yes, you heard correctly; I have 3.  One back up is great as long as you test it regularly and know how long it’s been running, etc.  Having multiple drives means that once one drops off, then you won’t be scrambling for a new one and there won’t be a high risk of actual data loss.  Keep things organized and like in the paper world, frequently get rid of that which you do not require.

Wait, what?  Yes, if you want those images you take today to be around for your kids or the alien overlords that will rule earth in the future, then for all sakes, please print your photos, favorite documents, etc.  Sure, you are adding a little more paper to the world, but have you ever heard of bit rot?  Even digital materials may break down randomly.  All it takes is for a single bit to flip in the header of a file and an image of a smiling baby turns into a nightmarish, Cthulhu dream of distorted proportions and non-Euclidian geometry.  So, go through your stock pile of random images and select some that mean something to you and go to a store and get them printed.  Pay extra for good or large prints.  Then take care of them according to the guidelines we discussed in the last post on Photographs and you are in business.  This could lead to some serious storage issues, so you’ll want to engage a de-cluttering model as you do this to ensure that a once normal proves of digital storage management doesn’t turn into an excuse to create an analog problem as well!

Passport drives, external drives and a flash/jump drive
Since digital materials are not tethered in any real way to the medium they are found on (DVDs, CDrs, flash drives, diskettes, etc.) you want to transfer the files from their hideously unstable carriers onto a hard drive (either internal or external) for safe keeping, and then proceed to regularly check for drive failure.  To quote Jeff Rothenburg, digital media (like Cds, DVds, etc. ) have a lifespan of "5 years to infinity, whichever comes first."

That’s all I am going to flood you with this week.  And thus also ends this short series of articles on personal preservation.  I am always willing to revive this series if there are other areas of preservation you want me to tackle (aerials anyone!  Maps, maybe?) feel free to send me an email and I’ll create a post on that topic!



Monday, August 24, 2015

Preservation at Home - Photographs

Last week I went over the nitty-gritty of preserving your precious, one-of-a-kind textual materials (err, papers, for non-archivists).  We discussed some ambient measures that can be taken to reduce, stop, or at least slow the progress of deterioration for paper documents and what the major concerns are when working with them (keep them upright if possible, flat and well-supported).  This week I am going to go over some tips for keeping those old photographs from turning into blank sheets of photo paper.

The three enclosures - Milar, polypropylene and an acid-free thumb cut sleeve

Photographs are tricky—they are composed of a chemical soup which may or may not contain various metals, plant dyes/inks and an emulsion layer which can be prone to getting sticky when it breaks down.  This is especially true for materials that were not properly developed.
As one of my mentors once said, if you want to truly preserve your photographs—scan them, then put the scanned copy in a frame and put your originals in a freezer pack.  This will halt the decay of chemical layers making up your photos.  An option, but one that will obviously be somewhat costly and then leaves you with a freezer full of photographs.  The first thing to do is stabilize the environment.  Much like my advice from last week, we need to get those photos into a box, and placed in an area of your domicile that experiences the least fluctuation in temperature and humidity.  This will keep them from warping, the inks from running and the emulsion from getting tacky.  Once you’ve found a suitable place then the next step is to evaluate any current issues—this means, are they 1) in a scrapbook with a glue backing, 2) a scrapbook with light adhesive and static bond sheets, 3) in a shoe box, or 4) taped to something . . . .  #’s 2 and 3 are your best starting point.  If you have photos in a shoe box, leave them there—perhaps add some cardboard (acid free) to ensure vertical stability and flatness, but other than that you are in a good place.  If you want to “go big” on this, you can purchase some polypropylene sleeves from an archival supply company to ensure your photos are well-encapsulated.  If you have a static-bond scrapbook, then life is not too bad—usually there will be little if any damage from the scrapbook, so just lift the sheets and slide the photos out, put them in a box and find the magic place in your home to keep them.  Feel free to spend as much as you want on archival supplies.  Outside of the polypropylene, you may want acid-free, thumb cut sleeves for the polypropylene enclosed photos.  Sounds like a lot, well, the reason for the additional sleeve is you can write on the sleeve (names, dates, locations) and not on the precious photograph.  If you have employed adhesives, whether they be glue or tape, then you, my friend, have your cut out for you.  You must remove the images from any contact with anything sticky.  Glues will slowly seep into the substrata of your photo and wreak havoc!  Tape tends to tear out precious parts of the image (content loss) when removed, so be judicious with your methods.  Use a hair dryer to re-activate the adhesive and liberate your photos from the tyranny of their sticky captors, then proceed to do as much preservation as you feel necessary to make sure no further damage occurs.

Archival shoe box, not for shoes
So keep those bad boys away from water, naturally and fire, of course—but also light.  UV light can destroy photos in a few short years depending on exposure levels.  Even a photo in the back of a dark hallway that receives 1-2 hours UV exposure per day will eventually turn into a freaky image of ghost friends and relatives as the definition fades like a bad rock & roll outro.  So keep those photons away from your photos and you should be doing great.

Move those photos to a dark stable place, and you’ve won the battle against degradation.  You may not win the war (long term, permanent conservation of your photos) , but don’t worry about that—no one will.

This should have been posted on Friday last week, but time got away from me again.  So, you can expect another post from this week dealing with digital materials. 

Till then,