For most of us, one of the largest concerns looming on our horizons is how to preserve our body of work for the future. Some of us go to great lengths to produce prints on archival papers, and to store them in perfect darkness at the correct humidity, each print packaged carefully in plastic so that we can handle them without fingerprints—that kind of thing. There’s nothing wrong with preserving photography in this way, but I always have to stop and wonder if this is the best way to go about it.
The thing about physical prints is that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we work to protect them, they will degrade with time. It might be a century or more from now, but there will reach a point where that print is no longer salvageable, at least not back to its original condition.
So what are the alternatives? I’m a big believer in digital preservation. And yes, I have met photographers—and people in other mediums, too—who eschew digital preservation. For instance, some people really don’t like to keep their music as MP3 files. These files, they argue, will someday become obsolete, so they’d much prefer to own music on CDs or even something like a record. The same goes for some book enthusiasts. Many would much prefer to purchase a physical book for their collection because they fear that someday, today’s e-book file formats will become obsolete and they’ll no longer be able to read those books.
The same holds true among some photographers. They fear that things like JPEGs, raw files, and even things like PDFs will someday become inaccessible as the file formats go by the wayside.
But in all honesty, when we stop to look around at digital media, how much truth is there to this notion that all files will someday be obsolete and thus unsalvageable? To my mind, it is a very small concern, and for a couple of reasons.
Number one, some file types—PDFs being a prime example—are so ubiquitous that they are highly unlikely to fall out of fashion any time soon. The PDF file format has been around since 1993, almost thirty years now. And it’s still one of the most popular formats available for sharing files, a format that you can read on just about any device imaginable.
The other reason I believe that digital preservation is the safest way to go? It’s pretty simple, actually. We’ve already seen lots of file types and even things like programming become so obsolete that modern machines can no longer run these things. And with that, there is always someone out there who is willing to do the work of preservation.
It’s the same as how we have people nowadays who recover music from old, degrading cassette tapes. People around the world do this with digital files, too. To this day, even though our modern computers can no longer run them, we can still find ways to play old MS DOS games from close to 40 years ago. There will always be someone out there who does the work of figuring out how to preserve these things to run on modern systems.
The same will be true of our digital image files. Too many JPEGs, raw files, and PDFs exist already, which means that even if these file types do go obsolete, someone will find a way for us to continue to be able to read them. Which means digital archival using the most prevalent file types of today is perhaps the safest way to preserve your body of work for the future.