My parents live in a memory palace. Staying with them, even for a day or two like I did last week, causes questions about childhood to bubble to the top of my mind. To help with their personal recollections in answering my questions they have photos and videos that add hard evidence to memory. I have brothers and sisters who want to see these things too, but live far away. Jenny and I are embarking on a project of digital preservation for us, for them, for other family members, and for our children.
I completed the setup phase of the project while Jenny and Elena were away. We’re now equipped to digitize still images, cassette tapes, and VHS tapes–in short, the prevailing media formats of my childhood. For the most part, hardware configuration was easy. We already had a flatbed scanner that hooks directly into the computer. I recently acquired a high quality tape deck with line outs that connects directly into the analog audio input of the computer. Video was somewhat more complicated, but the EyeTV Hybrid tuner we have connected to the computer also has an analog video input–just what we needed for our still-working VCR.
I already had all the necessary software. The newest version of our operating system has image capture software that works well with the scanner and even detects multiple prints at once, automatically aligns them, and corrects the colors in faded images. For cassettes I use Audio Hijack Pro, which has helpful features like automatic track splitting. I find that a hybrid approach works best for video, with EyeTV for capture and Handbrake for compression.
Although digital media has strong selling points, it carries its own risks which often show up in catastrophic ways. We’ve been bitten by the data loss bug in the past, which is what forced the postponement of this project. Some time ago, Jenny had started to scan scrapbooks when our hard drive crashed. We weren’t backing things up at the time, so while the damage was not irreparable, it did force repeated effort. This time around, we wanted to have a comprehensive strategy in place.
I’ve come up with a multi-tiered plan that should cover us for a wide variety of loss circumstances. Now I just need to implement it. It starts with automatic incremental backups using Time Machine, and occasional complete backups with SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner. On top of that, I’m planning to use a cloud backup service, probably CrashPlan–I don’t know whether I want to do full backups using this method, or only a subset of our more important files.
The third level is for a small amount of critical, static data including scanned scrapbooks, favorite photos, and important files that we plan to copy to at least two forms of removable media, including DVDs, USB thumb drives, and other solid state media. We’ll keep at least one copy with our emergency kit.
Now that the plan is in place, I need to implement it. We’ve already started digitizing home movies, including a scenes from Jenny’s kindergarten class and this classic from my father’s dissertation research.
Despite my best efforts to convert to stable formats and back them up well, I worry about the lifetime of these efforts. When Elena is my age, will PDF, JPEG, and MP4 still be around? How many times will I have to roll the files from one hard drive to another? Do I trust the cloud? I hope that resolutions to these questions become clear with time. I shouldn’t hold my hopes too high–there are lessons to be learned from tales of the Fountain of Youth and Tower of Babel.