The earliest recorded evidence of migration of data from one media format to another goes back to ancient Greece, when shortages of papyrus forced the Greeks to seek an alternative medium, in this case parchment, which in addition to being both readily available and inexpensive, was far more durable than papyrus. The result of this ancient undertaking was the Library of Pergamum, which was located atop the Acropolis. At its peak, the Library of Pergamum contained more than 200,000 volumes, all of which were given to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony as a wedding present, reportedly because the Bed, Bath, & Beyond Wedding Registry was still in Beta and kept crashing Anthony’s tablet.
If there are any givens about archiving digital image files—or any form of digital data for that matter—it’s important to recognize the fact that the archiving process is an ongoing, constantly evolving, long-term process. This is because the file formats we use, the software applications we use to interpret image files and the equipment we use to edit and save these image files are perpetually evolving. Add to this mix the fact that the file formats, software and hardware we use to process and edit these files are not from a single manufacturer, but dozens of manufacturers, each of which does things slightly differently.
As a result of this ongoing patchwork of technology and ideology, over time many digital files become corrupted and in some cases, indecipherable. Case in point: According to NASA officials, digital data recorded by the Viking space probe in 1975 were unreadable by 1995 because the format in which the data were recorded became obsolete. Ditto all of the data recorded during the development and flights of the Apollo moon mission. We somehow managed to get to the moon and back, but we can’t crack the data files we recorded along the way, if we ever want to do it again.
Long-term archiving of digital image files involves saving your files, preferably in a minimum of two file formats (i.e. TIFF and JPEG), using software applications that are up to date, burned onto name brand, archival-quality storage media, preferably using equipment also containing the latest firmware/software updates available at the time of storage.
Regardless of how you save your files and to which devices you save these files, be prepared to repeat the process in five to seven years and again in another five to seven years after that, in order to better ensure you will always be able to access your image files. If this seems excessive, just think about all those floppy and 3.5” discs you have parked in the garage. Have you tried reading them lately? Does your current computer even have a compatible floppy drive?
If you haven’t already done so, now’s a good time to organize your image files into categories and subcategories, complete with names, titles, copyright notices, GPS data, watermarking and all other relevant metadata—before you begin the archiving process. Just as you wouldn’t remove the labels from your canned goods before stacking them away in your kitchen cabinets, archiving images with little more than the file name assigned to it by the camera is a molehill of headaches that will soon become a mountain. Taking the time to properly identify your images at the start of this process will save you untold hours of hunting and searching in the coming years.
Images should be broken down by category, subcategory, sub-subcategory, by specific name and with as many relevant tags as possible in order to access them in more than one manner. Software applications that allow you to properly label image files include Photoshop, Lightroom, iView Media Pro, Picasa, Canto Cumulus and Extensis Portfolio, just to name a few.