Physical Archive or Digital Archive? | Meditations
As a writer and photographer, I am confronted with this question every couple of years. Either a friend is asking or I find an intriguing article that makes a hell of a case for one or the other. Being upfront, I believe that the best methodology is having both a physical archive and a digital one. But which one do I trust? The Physical Archive. Hands down. It is the best method for archiving your work for yourself, for your ancestors, and future anthropologists. If all the theories about a sun flare knocking out all electronics on earth are true, then paper archives will be the only way for future generations to access our information.
I am not a doomsday-er or even think that we will be a generation that future anthropologists have trouble understanding. However, I did start to consider the other day, what happens when my grandkids want to find out information about me or my work and USB isn’t a thing anymore, so the hard drive that contains my life’s work is inaccessible.
I worked in the recycling department at a local university and one day we got a call to pick up floppy disks (for generation z’s - a floppy disk was the mobile storage device before CD.) They had over a decade of research stored on floppy disks, but no way to read it. Therefore, they had a decade of research that unless printed on paper, it was gone. I thought about the fact that CD’s are in the same condition. In the early 2000s, I saved my documents and several short videos I made on CD’s and the CD’s are now sitting in a box and I don’t have a device to play it on. Therefore the information is inaccessible and we aren’t even a full two decades away from that time. (Sure, today, I could still hunt down a CD player, but within the next 2 decades they will go the way of the floppy disks.)
As a photographer, I have used over 5 different platforms to store photos on the “cloud”, however, 3 of the 5 have either gone out of business or broken their promised time length of storage for my clients. The final two are Adobe Creative Cloud and iCloud. These are the backups of my backups. However, I pay over $20 a month to maintain access to both of these cloud services. What happens when these cloud storages decide to up their price above what I am willing to pay or go out of business? (I know this will not occur in the foreseeable future, but Sears was never expected to fall. Therefore, Apple and Adobe will eventually die out too.)
Currently, for my digital archives that I keep my writing and photography on for the long-term are two Western Digital 2TB hard drives that are mirror copies of one another. However, to access them I have to use a USB 3.0, my MacBook and iPad and other devices are all switching to USB C. Therefore, I have less than a few years to change to new external hard drives that utilize this new technology or otherwise I risk losing access to my digital archives from 2010-2019.
The bottom line, technology changes, hardware adapts, and software transforms. Digital archives have to be constantly maintained and updated to stay current with technology and accessible. There are benefits to this, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, it is easy to search through, and it is easy to organize. But, what happens when you die or are unable to maintain and update these archives?
Consider the fact that for the better part of the past couple millennia that we have relied on physical archives to understand and learn from the people of the past. Journals, notes, books, artwork have all been things that have survived the test of time and have allowed us to understand the past. However, it is estimated that more than 2/3rd of the world’s physical archives have been destroyed throughout history. So, this presents a problem as well. Will the future generation take care of our physical archives?
It hit me the other day, that our generation will likely be known for our advertising. The majority of our physical archives seem to been advertising or promotional material. Think about it, how many times have you found a box of 500 flyers that never got passed out or old banners that can’t be used again in your office storage space?
So how do we physically archive our work? We start by printing it. We start by keeping boxes in safe spaces that allow for our work to be protected. We label it and inform the future generations of its importance. It is more likely to be thrown out by the preceding generations because it will not have historical importance yet.
For example, before my adopted grandmother’s passing, she worked very hard to organize photo albums, label photos, and make notes of events in her family’s history. However, because we are not blood-related to her, we have no idea about whether or not these archives that she created will be preserved for future generations. We can only hope.
Another quick example of a physical archive, my biological grandmother had an old cigar box that she stored images, letters, and mementos of her life. One day I sat down with my mother and photographed my grandmother’s physical archive. I read her letters and asked my mother about the stories behind many of the mementos and photos. Luckily, my mother has a good memory and was able to fill me in about the details of my grandmother’s physical archive. That Mother’s Day, I bought my mom an empty cigar box, that I asked her to fill with whatever she liked. Because I know one day my true inheritance will be that cigar box and my grandmother’s cigar box.
Don’t overcomplicate your archiving. Keep digital and maintain it for easy access. Keep physical archives for your legacy and if you forget to maintain your digital archive. Ultimately, physical archives are going to last throughout time and technological advances. But, they aren't the most convenient for searching, organizing, or editing, so use digital, too. The bottom line is that your archive should consist of multiple formats in digital and for your most important work in a physical copy.