What Makes an Image Archival?

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The following are excerpts from a photo industry post by Allen Showalter, owner of King Photo, Harrisonburg, VA. I plan to print it in our next newsletter, but until then, the information is too relevant to ignore.

The simple fact is that digital is not archival, well at least as far as archival relates to permanence. The history of technology makes it pretty clear that nothing that relies on current technology to be read or retrieved will be readable in the future. Ten or more years ago the list of possible storage solutions beside floppy and magnetic would have included: IDE drives, SCSI devices, removable hard disks, laser discs, 8 track tapes, PCMCIA cards, smart media cards, AOL’s You’ve Got Pictures etc. Today’s cloud storage, SSDs and DVDs are tomorrow’s VHS tapes. No matter how good they seem at the time something new will be better, cheaper, faster and the something new will swallow up the current thing. As far as cloud storage goes there was once a time when the AOL Welcome Screen was the most seen image in American culture with over 80 million views a week. It was more popular than any television show, magazine or website. Unlike floppy disks though the cloud will not go out of date for technology reasons but business reasons. AOL’s You’ve Got Pictures and MySpace had their day in the sun but are all but gone now. Is there anyone more than 25 years old who hasn’t lost photos or other data to a hard drive crash, broken cell phone or scratched game or music disc? What about information gone due to a change in email address, a new email program, forgotten password or expired credit card? Digital is fragile. Yes digital is transferable but there is a catch. Two catches really:

First there will be an overlapping period where there is a window of opportunity to transfer the old technology to the new. (Think 8mm movie film transfer, audio cassette to CD and VHS to DVD.) the window could be very small like a web gallery saying “move your photos in 30 days or lose them” or it could be very long like we are seeing with 8mm movies and LP’s (I remind you here that those are analog technologies) but eventually that window will close and it will not be cost effective to transfer.

The second catch with digital I think is the bigger one: someone has to care enough in every generation to make the transfer happen and to pay for it. It only takes a one generation lapse and the chain is broken forever. For example, if the current generation doesn’t get the family VHS tapes transferred soon the window will close and all the moving images of the family from 1980 to 1995 will be lost forever. In the photo industry we are doing our customers and our industry a disservice when we convey the notion of permanence with regard to any digital or cloud products. Those solutions are a temporary (5-15 year) storage repository. Only prints will make it through to 2050 and beyond and still be as readable then as they are today. Print to Preserve.

When the question “How many of you have photos of your grandparents?” comes up an any photo class or seminar, nearly every have goes up. When “How many of you have the negatives those were made from?” is asked, hardly any hands go up. Why? Because to any layman negatives were unreadable without technology and so they were discarded while the prints were treasured. Those negatives of yesterday are the digital images of today when the images are locked on to a DVD or SSD or other storage that needs an out-of-date reader to enjoy them.

Call it old school, tell me I’ve got developer in my blood, whatever. A family that takes time now to print their photos will be able to sit and look at them with their great-grand children someday. The family that relies on technology may be holding up a DVD and wondering “What are we supposed to do with this?”EverythingGoesphoto

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