Future-Proofing Your Family History

Google VP, Vint Cerf, lit up the newsreaders with his talk on “bit rot” this week. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to digital files that can no longer be opened or viewed because the software or technology that was used to create them no longer exists. My guess is that anyone who has been working on computers for ten years or more has their share of bit rot. I know I do.

Yes, it is an issue – especially for personal collections. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to future-proof your digital collections. Most of them are relatively easy and quite affordable. In fact, many of these options should be put to use now to protect you collections from all kinds of disasters – not just bit rot.

Move to Markdown for Writing

Markdown is a standard that uses plain text and simple characters like asterisks and hashtags to identify formatting elements. The key part of Markdown is plain text. Your document is saved as plain text – something that has been around since the beginning of the digital age.

Because it’s a standard, programmers can easily develop programs that can turn your plain text document into a Word document, HTML file for posting online or any number of other formats. The original document remains as plain text and is still quite readable on its own. When technology changes, programmers can quickly develop new routines to transform Markdown documents into the latest and greatest new thing.

You’ll be surprised to learn that a number of existing apps already support Markdown. Journaling apps were early adopters for obvious reasons. WordPress offers Markdown support as well as Tumblr. Even Scrivener supports it. Take a look in your app store for apps with Markdown support and see what’s available for your desktops and mobile devices.

Create Online Media Archives

Create accounts with online media platforms and upload copies of your photos and videos to them. Not only are you building an off-site backup of your collections that protects them from disaster, you may also be future-proofing those files too. Why do I think so? Because it has already happened.

When Apple announced it would not allow the use of Flash technology on the iPad, most video-sharing platforms used Flash to display those videos. Last month Google announced that YouTube would now default to HTML5 format for presenting video on the Web. Many other platforms have also moved to HTML5. Those of us with videos on these platforms did nothing but sit back and watch. Video wasn’t the only technology making the change. Scribd, the document-sharing platform, also made the switch from Flash to HTML5. All the documents in my Scribd library were updated and look exactly like the originals.

What about photos? I use Flickr for a number of reasons. Flickr gives every user 1TB of storage free – that’s roughly equivalent to 560,000 high-resolution digital photos. I can add titles and descriptions as well as metadata like dates, places, people and tags. I determine which copyright license I want for each item as well as setting privacy levels. Unlike some platforms that reduce the size of uploaded pics to save space, Flickr saves my images at their original resolution. Flickr photos are very search-friendly and my public photos have attracted a number of people – including cousins. Flickr has billions of images. Do you think that when a new image technology appears they will dump everything and start over from scratch? Neither do I.

The question with online platforms isn’t will they stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest technology, but rather what happens when they get shut down. I’ve seen that happen too. When the blogging platform, Posterous, was bought by Twitter they didn’t want the blogs. They wanted the talented developers. The announcement that Posterous would be shut down came as quite a shock to many of us. Fortunately, a number of other blog platforms saw an opportunity and stepped up with migration tools to make the move as easy as possible.

I personally think that the biggest threats to personal archives are disasters – equipment failure, storms, fires, etc. By taking advantage of the services discussed here we can be prepared for both situations. There is no be all/end all solution that guarantees all our digital files will survive into the future anymore than there is a guarantee that paper archives will. We do have options – some very good ones – and now’s the time to put them to work.

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