Honey, I deleted the kids! Preserving your family’s digital photos

Remember these?

For those of you who may not, it’s a 5.25-inch floppy disk – a very important storage medium for many years until superseded by the 3.5-inch micro version, then CDs, DVDs and flash drives.

If you were to come across one of these now, how would you open it?

Odds are that you don’t have the hardware to even read it, let alone the software to open that photo of you in your new parachute pants listening to that Flock of Seagulls album. For most of us, the data on this disk would be essentially lost – impossible or very expensive to retrieve.

The problem of the 5.25-inch floppy disk is an example of the challenges posed by digital content. Unlike a physical photograph or negative, you can’t just stick a digital file in a box and forget about it for 50 years. Hardware and software obsolescence, the natural degradation of the file over time (called bit rot), and the inability to find poorly described files, all contribute to making the preservation of digital information a somewhat daunting challenge.

Archivists face the same challenge as home photographers when preserving digital content. However, when archivists are asked to preserve digital content, it can be things like data from space missions, medical records, government documents, or important historical materials. Fortunately, archives and library professionals have come up with a set of best practices and standards as a guide to ensure that digital content is safe and accessible for years to come. In fact, the development and application of these best practices and standards have taken the form of a specialization called digital preservation.

As an archivist at the Benson Ford Research Center, which serves as the archives and library of The Henry Ford, one of my jobs is to ensure that the digital assets of the organization are retained following the tenets of digital preservation.

And although The Henry Ford is creating digital content at a higher volume than the typical home photographer, much of the digital preservation practice that we follow at the museum is very applicable to the home user.

Follow the links below to learn about some professional digital preservation concepts, as well as some tips on how you can apply them when storing digital photographs at home.

The digital master

File format compression

Which format?

Storage media and backups

Finding your files

Lance Stuchell is the Digital Project Archivist at the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford.