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I’m not alone in creating a vast personal digital archive. A friend in Colorado is digitizing his 35-millimeter slides with a slide scanner he bought on eBay; I have dibs on the scanner when he finishes.

What’s making these archives possible is the huge capacity of today’s disk drives: the scans of the reference materials from my book Database Nation take up nearly 300 megabytes. That was a lot of space when I wrote it back in 1999, but my digital camera today has more storage in its flash memory card.

But if you start creating your own digital archive, you’ll discover that digitizing information and entering keywords for Internet search engines is only half the task. You also have to organize digital files so that you can find what you’ve archived years from now. This complicated job requires, in addition to making backups, a taxonomy that allows you to enlarge and extend your database over decades. Yet another problem, for those making information public, is securing permission from copyright holders to put the data online. You can buy specialty software that fulfills many of these tasks. Unfortunately, these programs store data in proprietary formats. Since I hope to keep my data for 40 or 50 years, that constraint is bound to create hassles down the road: who knows what formats will be supported by systems then in use?

Clearly, this paper escape is still too cumbersome for most people. But if you have both a lot of knowledge about computers and a willingness to devote a good chunk of time to solving problems, you will find the challenge worth tackling.

Now, if I could just digitize those boxes of clothes in my basement.

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