The Attic and the Cloud: The Search for the Ideal Archival Format

What is the ideal archival solution?

The Attic
The attic of my home is a refuge when I am in a nostalgic mood. There must be a thousand photographs taken over the years by my family, myself, and professional photographers, covering four generations of family, and otherwise storing the stuff of memorable events. There are, however, no photos from the past five years; those are on “the cloud”, usually Apple’s.

The attic contains much more than photographs. There are memories in all sorts of formats, including home movies, CDs and DVDs, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, and even phonograph records, either 78 rpm ones or LPs. There are open reel audio tapes and 9 track computer tapes. For all I know, there may also be paper tapes (either fanfold or oiled) and cuneiform tablets in the clutter. What the formats have in common is that each was considered the medium of choice in its day, and its day has come and gone. Much of that information is now inaccessible.

Several Generations of Computer Storage

This is not just a personal problem. Businesses spend serious money trying to keep their valuable archives usable. The governments of the world have the same problem. Is it not ironic that the so called information age and its attendant technology have created a wholly new and largely unsolvable problem?


The Cloud
The Cloud Computing concept was introduced with great fanfare a few years ago. It promises to extend the economies of the server/client relationship into a new generation of technology. One of the more attractive features is the storage repository it provides, freeing space, filing effort and data volatility in the client workplace. It has been marketed with gusto to the personal computer customer as well.

So people are storing things there. It seems to be an article of faith that the cloud they use will always be there, or at least there will be a way to seamlessly access or convert it. But experience has shown us that in the long run there will be no such thing.

This is an engineering challenge, but engineers are responsible for the problem as well as the solution. Progress dictates that technology breakthroughs need to be bigger, better and above all, different from their predecessors. Sometimes new products and services cannot be upward compatible with the current state-of-the-art. So the new replaces the old, and people’s attics and basements begin to fill up.


The Perfect Medium
An industry has grown around the problem of media conversion. There is a market for just about every conceivable media translation; scanners for paper documents and photos, LP players that make MP3 copies, enterprise-wide services converting computer tape to disks, and so on. There is also a big market for off-site space for all this stuff.

Governments have contributed their wisdom to the problem in typical bureaucratic fashion. The US Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 and its subsequent amendments were imposed on government entities and their contractors to reduce paper clutter. Unfortunately, the statue runs for hundreds of pages, and prior laws mandate that tens of thousands of copies on (you guessed it!) paper needed to be printed and distributed, which in itself may have denuded several forests.

A clue to the solution may be found somewhere in Rochester New York, which was once the epicenter of high-tech media.  The headquarters of Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Polaroid and Bausch & Lomb were all within its vicinity. It is hard to beat optical media for speed, storage density, and durability, especially when written in the high-density ultra-violet wavelength range. These latest technologies require expensive capital investment.

Another clue pointing in a different direction may be found in the time capsules that we bury in the ground or launch into space. They are meant for us to communicate our lives to alien civilizations of the future or from other worlds. They typically contain photographs, documents, acoustic recordings, and sample products. We believe that these brave new worlds will be able to decode our message because we have made them simple.

And sure enough, billions of people and corporations tend to rely on paper, photography or the written page, for their most precious information. Our attics and extra-terrestrials may be telling us something if only we will listen. Simpler is often better.