Tips on Saving & Protecting Your Digital Media

About a year ago I did research into buying a media safe. There are really only two media safes/vaults priced for consumers (i.e., under $2000). Here they are. One costs $150; another costs $260.

Spending money on a media safe seems extravagant, but we are collecting more kinds of media these days, and it’s unclear about whether we are taking enough steps to protect our data.

Common sense tells us that we should store our backup data at a remote location and perhaps even use an online storage system. It’s good to have everything automated of course, but I’ve generally had to resort to manual backups (simply because I never have the time to come up with a systematic plan or to update existing plans).

Safety deposit boxes are a sensible solution, but expensive ($20 + per month) and inconvenient. Backup buddies (a friend who will agree to store your media files at his house if you do the same) are an eminently sensible solution, but it’s hard to find a friend who would lives close enough and would agree to do it without laughing at your paranoia.

The windows backup system on Windows XP is functional enough. If you backup to an external USB hard drive, you are protecting against hard drive failure (the most common possibility). (I wrote about this previously). The trick is using a consistent directory structure, or else, you’ll end up forgetting to backup a lot of items.

The problem with media safes is that they are expensive for their relatively small size. The $150 model is barely bigger than a shoebox; the $260 model is bigger, but not by much. (For example, you couldn’t really use it to store much of your 8×11 sized papers or reams of master videotapes). The good news of course is that media storage is becoming smaller, so it should eventually be possible to transfer previously archived media into more compact media. I have to wonder how many miniDV tapes it can hold though.

Any backup person has to be awaiting the new generation of DVD burners with anticipation. 4 gigs used to seem like a lot, but now it is barely enough to hold media files for 6 months. (And if you download media files off the Internet, heaven help you). Interestingly, I don’t bother to backup or even archive downloaded media files. Yes, I’ve downloaded episodes of Buffy, Twilight Zone and Get Smart, but if I lost them, I wouldn’t cry much. Far more painful is forgetting what you used to have. That’s why having some sort of cataloging program to catalog your archived content (not on your PC) is great. I’m not a big fan of the ipod empire, but iTunes seems to be doing a remarkable job in helping individuals to manage and catalog content.

It’s unclear whether media safes can ever offer total protection against disaster. As this fire expert stated,

The survival of any component in a fire may be quirky, at best; rated containers may fail for one reason or another, and unrated containers as crude as a steel pipe imbedded in the slab have served to protect data in homes swept by wildfires (which subsequently burned to the slab in the absence of any effort by firefighters to the contrary). About the only way to assure survival is to construct a Class 1 noncombustible structure (steel and concrete), and keep your materials in a rated fire container within that structure, as the contents of the building may burn.

Still it’s hard to quantify the loss of personal data like essays and photos and videos that exist only in digital form. Insurance policies don’t really prevent you against things which have little economic value to anyone but yourself. For content creators offers reasonable backup for content. They have the which does daily snapshots of websites. (The easiest way to make sure your content is getting archived there is to download the alexa toolbar to your IE browser, and it will automatically make a note to archive any page you visit). At the moment, the is running 9 months behind on archives, but at least you have that much.

Alexa doesn’t offer a Mozilla solution for, but it looks like the a9 toolbar incorporates alexa technology to do this (Read more).

Another option for people creating Creative Commons content is to store things on, or even google video or newsgroups. The problem is that you are donating your contract to these groups without getting a guarantee it will be archived successfully. 10 years later, if you try to get help from someone obtaining an archived video file you donated, it may be hard to find someone to do it for free.

To my knowledge google hasn’t really gotten into archiving content except for email. Google has done a pretty incredible job with gmail; its backup capabilities are immense, but it’s a free account and google doesn’t really have any legal obligation to preserve or retrieve your email content (although as one of the lead developers pointed out, the perception from users that their data was somehow unreliable would cause an en masse exodus of users from their product). Pop 3 is another issue. Synchronization is an issue, and sometimes you can’t download your Sent folder (which egad! is the only folder writers care about!). Actually yahoo mail (whose archiving qualities I used to complain a lot about) now lets you create zipped archives of all your mail folders, making the process as simple as 1,2,3 (and letting you download emails without erasing them from the server).

Content management systems are both the solution and a problem. 2o years from now it’s unclear how easy it will be to extract wordpress posts from a mysql file, and xml files require some sort of xslt transformation program to make it human-readable. The public archiving sites may spider these sites, but it’s unclear how reliably they can do so without human intervention. Still, the thought of having two storage strategies (the archived output and the database source) does offer a bit of comfort; if one fails, you can always resort to the other.

Finally, when talking about disaster, you can’t overlook the megadisasters: nuclear war, meteors hitting earth, and the Yellowstone supervolcano (which is overdue to erupt and could lead to the destruction of the North American continent). Obviously individuals can’t worry too about such cataclysms. But those dedicated to preserving our species (the archeologists, the archivists,, need to give serious thought to creating self-sustaining digital archives “offplanet. ” I’m talking about two different things: creating mirror backups on a spacestation orbiting the planet and interstellar probes to preserve our cultural record in the event of complete destruction of the species. I don’t know enough astronomy to imagine if there’s any such natural phenomenon, but we need some way to transmit an ongoing signal of our digital archives to outerspace and have the same signal boomerang back to us continuously. Maybe we lack the technology and the resources to carry such a project now. But doesn’t mean we can dream.