What Lasts?

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...
English: 8-inch, 5.25-inch, and 3.5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I found two stacks of 3 1/2″ floppy disks I had used to back up a computer I no longer have. They reminded me of a presentation on preserving church documents from that same. The presenter held in one hand an 8 inch floppy disk and asked if anyone in the audience had equipment to read the files on that disk in his other hand he held a microfiche of the original minutes of the first assembly of the Presbyterian Church held in Philadelphia in 1717. He assured us that the church also had the original paper minutes as well. That paper would last 300 years surprised few in our audience as scholars have access to biblical and other manuscripts nearly 2000 years old.

Fifteen years ago each of those stacks of twenty-five floppy disks contained a compressed version of the data on my hard drive. Additional disks would have held back ups of the programs. These disks were a great improvement over the 5.25-inch floppies from earlier computers, holding nearly six times as much data.

Eventually I upgraded to CD-ROMs each of which could hold twelve times as much data as both stacks of floppy disks combined and they had a better shelf-life. Probably not 300 years, but longer than floppy disks that dust or magnets can degrade.

While sorting and organizing I also purged many of those CD-ROM backups as DVDs have replaced them and more recently cloud storage has taken on that function. But I doubt these will be accessible in a few hundred years. Already I have trouble opening some of the files created less than 20 years ago due to software incompatibilities.

Stone writings (pictured below) although they last for hundreds of years have different problems. The people who made these writings disappeared before Columbus arrived in 1492. Did these markings have religious significance? Do they tell about events of their community? Or are they ancient graffiti; doodles by people with time to waste? Although their writings have lasted hundreds of years, their meanings have vanished with the people who wrote them.

Writings on stone
Petroglyphs seen at the Petrified Forest National Park believed to be between 650 to 2000 years old. (Photo by R. Shaw 2009.)

How will we preserve images and stories for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and …? And if they last, will future generations understand them?

The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
— Isaiah 40:7-8 (NRSV)


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