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Save your Stuff - CDs and Hard Disk may degrade sooner than you think

Your hard-disk has millions of photographs, music of every genre, college papers, and mountains of e-mail messages.

Yet no one has figured out how to preserve these electronic materials for the next decade, much less for the ages. Like junk e-mail, the problem of digital archiving, which seems straightforward, confounds even the experts.

In the meantime, individual PC owners struggle in private. Desk drawers and den closets are filled with obsolete computers, stacks of Zip disks and 3½-inch diskettes, even the larger 5¼-inch floppy disks from the 1980's. Short of a clear solution, experts recommend that people copy their materials, which were once on vinyl, film and paper, to CD's and other backup formats.

But backup mechanisms can also lose their integrity. Magnetic tape, CD's and hard drives are far from robust. The life span of data on a CD recorded with a CD burner, for instance, could be as little as five years if it is exposed to extremes in humidity or temperature.

And if a CD is scratched, Mr. Hite said, it can become unusable. Unlike, say, faded but readable ink on paper, the instant a digital file becomes corrupted, or starts to degrade, it is indecipherable.

Now Mr. Cohen's three home computers are filled with tens of thousands of photos, songs, video clips and correspondence.

Over the years, Mr. Cohen, who moonlights as a computer fix-it man, has continually transferred important files to ever newer computers and storage formats like CD's and DVD's. "I'll just keep moving forward with the stuff I'm sentimental about," he said.

Yet Mr. Cohen said he had noticed that some of his CD's, especially the rewritable variety, are already beginning to degrade. "About a year and a half ago they started to deteriorate, and become unreadable," he said.

And of course, migration works only if the data can be found, and with ever more capacious hard drives, even that can be a problem.

Read full article - The New York Times >Even Digital Memories Can Fade