I'm not sure why this was filed on MSN under Men's Lifestyle articles, there's an interesting article on "The Digital Ice Age" which takes a look at the challenges we face to read digital documents as the technologies around us and in use every day grow and evolve.
"... the threat of lost or corrupted data faces anyone who relies on digital media to store documents -- and these days, that's practically everyone. Digital information is so simple to create and store, we naturally think it will be easily and accurately preserved for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our digital information -- everything from photos of loved ones to diagrams of Navy ships -- is at risk of degrading, becoming unreadable or disappearing altogether."
I've seen this first hand in my work and at home, moving from system to system and as we upgrade applications to the latest versions. I've kept old Macs around to access files I created in various applications, files that generally I may be unable to open on new computers (Mac or PC). There are some files (photos, for instance) that have moved quite elegantly from computer to computer, OS to OS, year after year. But there are other files (ones that like your old notes from the college class you took on Perhaps this is the digital equivalent of being a "pack rat."
"The National Archives must not only sort through the tremendous volume of data, it must also find a way to make sense of it. Thibodeau hopes to develop a system that preserves any type of document -- created on any application and any computing platform, and delivered on any digital media -- for as long as the United States remains a republic. Complicating matters further, the archive needs to be searchable. When Thibodeau told the head of a government research lab about his mission, the man replied, "Your problem is so big, it's probably stupid to try and solve it.
"The data crisis is by no means limited to the National Archives, or to branches of the military. The Library of Congress is in the midst of its own preservation project, and many universities are scrambling to build systems that capture and retain valuable academic research."
As long as the computers don't fail it's one less incremental task I need to add to my 'to do' list, the need to convert and store files on new media. (For the record, I have back-ups of files on hard disk saved to floppy and magneto optical disks, just in case the hard disk or older computers retire themselves.) And if you have the time to make the right moves for your historical documents, you can follow these tips from the article:
Preserving Your Data
There is no magic machine that will make your files last forever. But these simple strategies can help.
Make a bombproof backup. The easiest way to lose data is through hardware failure. To protect your files, get a backup drive with enough capacity to hold the contents of your entire computer. Drives such as the One Touch III Turbo from Maxtor (maxtorsolutions.com; $900) can store up to 1 terabyte and be set to back up your PC automatically. Of course, even external drives can be lost in a fire or flood. For extra security, consider an online storage service such as XDrive (xdrive.com) that gives you 50GB of space for about $10 per month.
Go for the gold. Burned CDs and DVDs can begin to degrade after three years. Kodak (kodak.com) and Memorex (memorex.com) make archival discs with a layer of 24-karat gold to prevent oxidation that are designed to last 300 years. Still, it's prudent to check your storage media every few years for data corruption, and to ensure that they're still compatible with modern computers.
Resurrect your data. Companies such as Ontrack Data Recovery (ontrack.com) can salvage information from damaged hard drives. It can be done online or by sending hardware to the lab. For digital cameras, programs such as MediaRecover (mediarecover.com; $30) and eImage Recovery (octanesoft.com; $27) can recover photos that were accidentally deleted.
When in doubt, print it out. Most software formats are proprietary, meaning they could become obsolete if the companies that create them go belly up. For important files, save a copy in a standardized format such as text or JPEG. And remember, a printed copy is sometimes the best form of backup.