Investing in the Past: What is Safe Storage in the Digital Age? What is Preservation of a Legacy?
October 12, 2016
Reviewing all the images that I've kept since about 1971 has been challenging. The decision to spend time going through box after box of prints and slides to find the best originals means that I am investing time and money in the past rather than creating new work of the future. At the same time, I am both excited about enabling the sharing of the vast quantity of images not shown in years, and disappointed that this doesn't feel noble, productive or creative.
There were lots of comments about the previous post regarding advice for keeping a responsible archive of images of past works. The decisions take into account a variety of factors.
Here are some of the highlights:
My primary recommendation is to use archival boxes for storage. I have been using these slide boxes for years. All of the slides stored in these boxes look fine. Steel slide cabinets were great but they took up too much space, so the archival boxes are my choice.
I am also storing the single remaining copy of my black & white prints, negatives and color transparencies in similar archival boxes. This is following the advice of the National Archives which stores important content for the federal government. Click here for recommendations for the National Archive.
A number of comments suggested storing slides in plastic sheets. I am NOT going to recommend this approach. While some plastic sheets claim that they are designed for archival use, I just don't trust plastic. Many plastics out-gas and at this point I can't distinguish the so-called "safe" archival plastic sheets from those that are not safe. The plastic sheets restrict air circulation. The National Archives says: "Older plastic or paper enclosures which came from the photo lab may not be safe for long term storage."
What is Long Term Storage in the Digital Age?
You can never be certain. I look back at the way information storage and sharing has changed in the past 20 years and the pace at which technology is accelerating.
Here is a very real example.
Do any of you remember ZIP Drives? I have one digital image on Zip Drive that I cannot access now. How ironic!? I made a 9'x 9' wall quilt and it was difficult to photograph because of its size. The image data was also huge, so at the time, a ZIP disc was the answer. A short lived answer. Within two years, ZIP was out. No ZIP, and now, no original image available. Nos it is another time consuming hurdle and expense for archiving the original.
Get this for further irony. At the time, the image data for the large wall quilt was so big, I didn't even dare to put it on the hard drive of my desktop computer. A 32 MB image would have been half the hard drive at the time. [Please stop laughing now.]
OK. that was one example, but there are more. Do you remember floppy drives? Another technology that none of us uses any more. But they were handy and convenient at the time. Thank goodness my images are currently on CD's and DVD's -- but, shocking as it sounds, how many of you have a computer without a CD/DVD drive? How long will it be till, I won't be able to buy an external drive to read the discs? "Paranoia strikes deep."*
For the long term I am trying to think about "What is safe?" "What will be accessible into the future?"
Part of my thinking to purge the slides was that they weren't safe enough. They were the physical copy of the image. They may have even been the original, quality image, but they too were vulnerable to damage from dust, mildew, a fire or earthquake. None of this is planned. Fire is a reality in everybody's house. I live in California near open space at the end of a canyon. Where I live, fire and earthquakes are a potential reality, but every location, no matter where you live, has its vulnerabilities. Haven't we just heard about hurricanes, and floods in the news?
My goal is to have multiple platforms.
So, for now, this is my plan. I am keeping:
- one original slide. (Perhaps I should have kept two? Too late.)
- scanning the one best original slide for a digital record - (more information later)
- one black & white original photo
- all negatives for the film/print images.
- all my transparencies 2" and 4"x5"
- one print copy of catalogs, postcards, and documentation of past exhibitions.
- digital copies of images will be uploaded to my computer, external harddrive and Carbonite for back up.
- eventually, I hope to add a larger variety of images and documentation to my website, but even that can't hold everything.
- All my sketch books starting from 1970 have been kept and stored.
Is that enough? Is that responsible? Each of us has to make our own decisions.
Is there any answer that I haven't considered? What are you doing with your images? Your past inventory records. Your old catalogs? I'd like to know. This is important information to share.
Future posts will provide more information on protecting and archiving your records.
I just sent my first 1000 slides for scanning and will let you know how this ScanCafe test group turns out. At .27 cents per slide, it still adds up to $300 investment. That is not chump change when I have 1,000's of slides yet to go!
This post was updated on December 13th, 2021.
*Paranoia Strikes Deep is from the song lyrics of Buffalo Springfield song "For What's It's Worth"
"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid.."