Storing Treasured Memories On CD May Be Risky

As digital recording has become the norm, so has digital storage — many consumers and news outlets now archive their files on CD. But while tape recordings can last up to 150 years, CDs can deteriorate after only a few years. Recording expert Sam Brylawski explains how to preserve your digital memories.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Think your digital pictures and home videos will be around forever? Well, think again. A study reported last month that digital files can be easily corrupted, and the shelf life of a CD may be a lot shorter than expected. In fact, while old tape recordings could last as long as 150 years if stored properly, CD-Rs often deteriorate in as few as 10 years. Today, we'll talk with an expert on recordings about what the Library of Congress is doing and what you might be able to do to preserve those digital memories.

If you have encountered this problem, what are you doing about it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us is Sam Brylawski, the editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara, coauthor of the study "The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age." He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back with us.

Mr. SAM BRYLAWSKI (Editor, Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we'll talk about people's music collections and photos in a moment. But your report describes a tremendous problem for libraries and archives. We're at risk of losing countless hours of radio broadcasts - you could start with mine, that would be a place to start - and historical footage.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, that's right. We - I don't want to be alarmist - the report isn't intended to be alarmist, but there are things we just have to be concerned with, particularly in the digital age. When we were making open reel copies for preservation, open real tape copies...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: ...preservation was somewhat passive. You put them on a shelf, and as long as your room was temperature and humidity controlled to some degree, you were pretty safe. Though paradoxically, newer tape has less of a shelf life than older tape. Often materials made for production aren't necessarily the best for preservation. And that's certainly the case with the digital era, where what we're doing is we're making digital files.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the preservation method, does it particularly matter whether those digital files are on a CD, CD-ROM or whether they're in a computer?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, it matters to some extent. I think that what really matters is - preservationists have a neat little word they use called LOCKSS, Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. And it really doesn't matter - there's no single recommended way, hard drive or CD-R or other backup tape, but you just should have several of them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Although, really, I think that we found in the study that Rob Bamberger and I did for the National Recording Preservation Board, is that there's too much reliance on CD-Rs - that is, recordable CDs, the ones you put in your computer, you buy at the store for 10 cents or 25 cents, and you download your files.

CONAN: So this is not the copy of the, you know, The Beatles mono CD that you bought last year. This is something...

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: No.

CONAN: ...you bought yourself and put recordings on.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: That's right. That's right. Although, I mean, researchers found that even CDs aren't permanent. They get air in them if there's a hole in the plastic or something like that. They oxidize, and that harms them. But we can replace CDs for $15. And CDs, mass CDs - well, at least at one time they sold in the hundreds of thousands; now they sell a little less. But those published materials are safer. Its those home recordings or those unique recordings of concerts and radio broadcasts that I think are at most risk.

CONAN: Aren't those recorded - you know, here at NPR they preserve a - sadly to say, every word I utter.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, and that's a good thing. And NPR has had - you know, I think that NPR is building - it's my understanding for the research we did on this - a digital repository, which is what big institutions do. They build a big storage center with lots of servers and they download these files on servers and then they automatically, at night or otherwise, back them up on the other servers. And they have a mirror site that's away from earthquake country and fire country. And that's...

CONAN: I think we're putting one on Pluto.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Yeah. Well, that would - that would be good. Now that it's downgraded from a planet, it probably needs the business.

CONAN: Needs the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: But...

CONAN: So that same idea, LOCKSS, lots of copies, that would be applicable to somebody who's got home recordings of their kid's eighth birthday party?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Absolutely. And so it's not that hard. I mean, what you do is you make a few copies and you put them in different places. What's hard is remembering 10 years from now to copy them again, because they do deteriorate. And it's not that any digital medium is inherently bad. None are permanent. And I think anyone who's ever used the word processor for any length of time has lost files. And that could happen to audio, and video.

CONAN: It happens every day.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Exactly.

CONAN: So that can happen with other files, too, no matter - even if you store them on separate, you know, drives?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, I've lost my backup drive. I mean, that's a personal experience. That isn't in this national report. So I needed two backup drives. I mean, it can get a little crazy but that's what I do. Another thing - I mean, there were - part of the report is not to really recommend its looking at the state of preservation in the country are not necessarily consumer tips.

But my own personal preferences, at least for small documents, is to use an email service that gives you free space and store them in the cloud, as they call it now. As long as - I don't really mind if Google reads my email or my photos I'm trying to save. If they want to look at my kids, that's great.

CONAN: And when you do look, though, at those national - you know, the things we want to preserve, the great speeches, the great events...

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Right.

CONAN: ...those kinds of things, have things been lost as a result of this phenomenon?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, I don't think too much of digital materials had been lost because they haven't been backed up. I think one of the challenges of digital materials is that they aren't being recorded in the first place. Or I should say, they aren't being recorded for preservation. There are so many podcasts and so many websites that have audio and MySpace pages where bands promote their music. That material isn't getting preserved in a systematic way.

CONAN: We're talking with Sam Brylawski, editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara, and coauthor of the study, " The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's start with Shaktri(ph), is that right? Do I have a Shakti(ph)?

SHAKTI (Caller): Yes, Shakti.

CONAN: Go ahead. In Charlotte, North Carolina.

SHAKTI: Yes. I worked with a number of recording artists. And one of the things that I have learned over the years is - and I know a lot of people are going to get confused. I used what are called 24-karat gold-layered CD-Rs. And I'm not going to plug any of the brands. But one of the companies that manufactures these claims that their data will remain intact for three centuries. And I just wanted to know if your guest has any experience with - again, these aren't the gold-colored CD-Rs you buy at your local retail stores. These are actually 24-karat gold-layered CD-Rs.

CONAN: And they run instead of 10 or 20 cents a copy. How many...

SHAKTI: These will run - if you buy them in bulk - about $1.50 a piece.

CONAN: Okay. Is that format an improvement, do you think?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, I don't know anything about 24-karat gold CDs. But I do know that tests have shown that I've read that CDs that used a gold layer are better because they don't oxidize, the gold doesn't oxidize. So there is science on that. But I'm just personally not aware of the degree of different kinds of gold CDs.

CONAN: So after 299 years, Shakti, are you prepared to sue?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHATTI: No, not at all. But I am going to start backing up every so often.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, that's what to do. And I even heard recommendations to buy a few brands of CDs and back up on some several different brands.

CONAN: Because it sounds like it's cheap enough.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: It's cheap enough. It's just remembering to do it. Who remembers to go in the closet after five years, oh, it's time to back up the CDs?

CONAN: Thanks, Shakti, for your time. Appreciate it.

SHAKTI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tina(ph), Tina with us from Cincinnati.

TINA (Caller): Hi. My question is related to - about 14 years ago, we started taping my son when he was a baby, the old videotape on Hi8 tape. But about six years ago, they make it usable. We kind of edited those tapes and took it to a professional photographer to have it edited and then professionally put onto a CD - actually DVDs. And so those DVDs are now six years old, but they're already deteriorating and pixelating. And so I'm just wondering, are those DVDs lost to us or is there anything that can be restored?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, I would certainly copy them and as soon as you can, copy them to different media. I would also - well, I really know next to nothing about video. Id try to play them on different machines. There are - sometimes the hardware, certain types of hardware are more forgiving of problems and do better error correction. The fact that you can play the DVDs is a really good sign that they're playable at all. So I would copy them as soon as you can, and then have - I have to say, take them to the expert on video files to look at.

CONAN: Good luck, Tina.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. One of the key things there is go back and look at them, and go back and play these recordings that you made. See what kind of shape they're in and, well, then make a back up.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: That's right. I mean, I think anyone who has ever looked at old home movies on videotape, VHS tape, if you look at something 10 or 15 years old, you'll see that archivists like myself, this isn't a sky is falling issue. They're gonna see the deterioration. It's not just the audio files or video files that could see it - you can see it as Tina could.

CONAN: And so that the idea - you know, it's crazy because we've seen them look back at the old, you know, movie reels and newsreel stuff and that sort of stuff, and it looks quaint and ancient. In fact, something that's only 15 or 20 years old can look pretty quaint.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: That's right. I mean, a good thing about digital is is that if you can make those copies systematically or periodically, the copies will be near identical to the original and you won't lose those generations like you do with magnetic tape.

CONAN: And as you make copies of magnetic tape...

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Exactly.

CONAN: ...copy after copy after copy. Each individual copy gets a little more (unintelligible).

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Its like carbon paper, for those who remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you - boy, just the smell of mimeo just wafted through my nostrils. I don't know what triggered that. We're talking with Sam Brylawski, the editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara about digital recording and, well, the possible deterioration it can suffer over time.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

What tipped you off to this?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, Congress commissioned the study to - of the National Recording Preservation Board at the Library of Congress. I used to be head of the recorded sound section at the library. And so I helped to write the story with an NPR personnel, Rob Bamberger...

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: ...as you may know. He was the co-author.

CONAN: Works at WAMU...

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Right, right.

CONAN: ...in town. This email from Kaye Pauley(ph) in Pendleton, Oregon. What about flash memory? How does that stand up?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: I would not trust flash memory for long-term storage because it's susceptible to the environment so much. I mean, I don't have evidence, but when you go through an X-ray machine at an airport and things like that, if it's the best you have, use it. But use a few of them.

CONAN: Well, here's a related question from Anthony(ph), why are we still talking about backing up digital media on CD-ROM? Isn't this an akin to someone referencing an old reel-to-reel backup of media in the current day? Who's going to be able to access CD-ROM in 50 years? Isn't flash media the better, cheaper, safer solution?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Well, that's a good question. There's a few answers to it. First of all, I'm not a material scientist. That's a big field, and it's a serious field and I can't speak to it. I'm sure there are experts in it who would tell you that there's different degrees of flash media.

The advantage of CD-ROM is is that, like that first caller you had who talked about 300 years for the...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: ...24-karat gold CDs, is that CD-ROM is so prevalent, we're going to be able to play it back because there's a lot of hardware out there. And that's very, very important.

Flash drives are - there are a lot but, you know, we know that in 10 years, your USB plugs that you use for the flash drive today is going to be replaced by another kind of plug in your machine. Even flash drives, you might have trouble finding hardware to use. You'll have to buy an adapter. Itll be around. So I don't think that - that's one of the issues.

And the other issue is that CD-Rs are so inexpensive, but they're not a recommended preservation medium. And this is one of the important things the study found is is that the real recommendation right now is to have digital repositories, these multiple servers, like I said. And that's great if you're a major university, the Library of Congress or NPR. But I don't have that at home, you don't have that at home. And we have to find solutions for smaller archives.

CONAN: Let's go to Tom(ph). Tom, with us from Oklahoma City.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I just did a report about this, and it's a super fascinating topic. One thing I would like to relate it to would be like the burning of the Library of Alexandria. You know, all the information was lost and you had no way to get it. And there's a lot of digital-born information out there that -you know, if there's no continuous backup, that we'll just lose it.

CONAN: Well, we had...

TOM: And...

CONAN: ...a conversation about Antony and Cleopatra earlier in the week, so we get the Library of Alexandria in there, too. Tom, have you found some things that have been lost?

TOM: Well, yeah. I mean, just think about all the websites out there that have things that are a specific format. I mean, if you have a Windows, you know, a Word file from '97, it's not necessarily compatible with the new Windows. So compatibility is a big issue.

CONAN: Even within certain kinds of operating systems?

TOM: Yeah. So metadata is embedded in a lot of software. So if you don't have the right, you know, software to read it, you may lose the proper interpretation or you may just get the wrong meaning from it.

CONAN: Sam Brylawski, is he right?

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: I think he's 100 percent right, yes. And, I mean, this is - the study is looking - looks at that and notes how many websites, which by their very nature, are ephemeral. They get refreshed every day. They change. They go out of business. Someone doesn't pay for their domain name, they're gone.

And we have to think about how to preserve that and think about whether we can preserve all of them. And if we don't preserve all of them, who's going to make the selection? Or if we could, which, technologically, we can, the Internet Archive is downloading and trying to preserve old websites.

But access to them - what your listener said about metadata, which is data about data, cataloging data and technical data is what metadata is. Having the right identifiers so that we can find it and so - and we understand it technically.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the phone call.

TOM: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: As you look ahead to the future of this, this is not going to get easier. You mentioned ephemeral. Well, ephemera - we know - we're just still learning, obviously, about digital, but we're learning - we know a lot about ephemera. Stuff that was meant to be thrown away 100 or 150 years ago is now considered incredibly valuable in part because of its rarity.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: That's right. In part, and in large part before - because of what it tells us about society. The way that historians at one time were studying, you know, the great men and it's important - so important to understand about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But there's other part of society that tells us what America was in the 18th century. And this so-called ephemera tells us or tell the future where we were as a people.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and we wish you the best of luck as you continue to investigate this story.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: Thanks.

CONAN: Sam Brylawski, editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara, co-author of the recent study on digital archiving. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

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