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Don’t let your pictures fade away

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Childhood is fleeting, so it’s natural that parents want to capture the good times, especially during the holidays. Digital devices make it easier than ever to record memorable moments. Some experts recommend that parents decrease clutter by using digital images to preserve a memory of everything from science projects to beloved toys that have been outgrown.

The nagging question is whether memories are actually safe when they are stored in digital formats. Concerns about such storage are showing up among preservationists who have begun to mutter about the “digital dark ages.” The Library of Congress has actually created a website designed to help families build and protect a personal digital archive at www.digitalpreservation.gov/you/.

According to the experts, you should be concerned about two things if you hope to see your child’s baby pictures when he graduates from high school. First is data rot, the degradation of information that’s encoded in bits and bytes. Durable as they may look, CDs, DVDs and flash drives can break or decay when they are exposed to temperature extremes, humidity and mold. Also, data consists of magnetic signals. If even a few of these are degraded, an entire disk may become unreadable.

Second, digital information can be read only if you have the right machine and the right software. Every time you upgrade equipment, you risk losing access to files that were encoded with an earlier format.

So what’s a parent to do? Commit yourself to a few simple strategies that make it more likely that your memories will be available to you — and maybe your grandkids.

• Be selective. Digital storage makes it possible to take 300 pictures of your child’s birthday party. Delete photos that are blurry or boring. If you can’t bear to do that, create two archives — one for truly memorable photos and one for everything else.

• Get organized. Setting up a good filing system takes time and thought, but it’s effort that will be repaid. The easiest system is chronological. Get in the habit of downloading photos from phones and cameras, as well as video and audio files, at least once a month. You can also build archives around seasonal events. Kids love seeing themselves grow from Christmases or, for that matter, Halloweens past. Or, build a separate archive for each child.

• Label and tag. Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to retrieve a great photo. Images that are especially meaningful deserve a label that includes all the information a good reporter would want. When? Put the year first and then the month to stay in chronological order. Who? Include names or initials to make searching easier. Where? This is especially important for travel photos. Why? Make up a code word that will help you identify special photos.

• Back it up. Having one copy of anything you care about is asking for heartbreak. Although DVDs, CDs, and flash drives make it possible to store copies of important files in a fireproof box or even a safe deposit box, they are easily lost and damaged — and you have to remember to update them. A portable hard drive can be programmed to perform a regular back up for everything that’s on your main computer, but will survive neither fire nor flood.

Storing photos online makes it easy to share and get access no matter where you are, but you can’t necessarily count on the company managing the cloud to be there in 20 years. Crazy as it sounds, paper may be the best way to guarantee the longevity of photos and other documents. Tapes can also be surprisingly durable if they are stored properly in a cool, dry place.

• Update. Some experts recommend creating new copies every five years to avoid data loss. Others point out that every copy of a digital file is a little less perfect than the one before. To some extent, parents who are serious about preservation have to think of themselves as curators, checking the quality of the archive periodically. For advice, as well as materials, visit familyarchive.com.

Given the effort that goes into caring for a digital archive, it’s worth giving some thought as to why you are creating one in the first place. Especially during the holidays, it’s important to remember that, often, the very best way to make a memory that lasts is to be fully present in the moment with your child.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.

2011, Carolyn Jabs.

Updated 4:30 pm, July 9, 2018
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