Despite claims to the contrary, the storage media in wide use today—CD-ROMs, spinning hard drives, flash memory, etc.—aren’t very durable. “You’re talking years, not decades,” says Howard Besser, a professor and archivist at New York University who was named a pioneer of digital preservation by the Library of Congress. “A CD-ROM was originally supposed to last 100 years, but many fail in 10.”
Old-fashioned paper has done very well by comparison. Until people made a habit of adding acidic chemicals to their paper in the 19th century, books could last five hundred years or more. And while paper has its vulnerabilities—to fire and water, for example—so do more newfangled technologies. A hard disk, for instance, may suffer from a loss of mobility. “You’ve got to have it spinning regularly or you’re not going to be able to play it,” says Besser. “It’s kind of like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.”
At a 1998 conference, Besser and 12 others worked out a plan for the perfect long-term storage device: They would etch images into platinum with a laser and bury the platinum in the desert. “Ideally, we would put a nuclear-waste facility next to it,” Besser adds, “so people will never forget where it is.”
But even the most indestructible data storage won’t be of any use if no one can decode the contents. Archivists also need to preserve the languages or programs used to save information, whether that’s ancient Greek or Word for Windows 95. Besser and his colleagues worry that this decoding issue will be the real bottleneck. “The durability of something is a far smaller problem than the other problems that we have,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Popular Science.