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As our lives become more digitized, a number of eminent computer scientists are starting to warn that our most treasured family photos, heartfelt correspondence, and legal documents might be irretrievably lost if we do not print them on acid-free paper and safely store them in a cool, dark, and dry place. After all, the original Declaration of Independence, written on parchment, is still on display in Washington, DC, but digital documents from even 1990-vintage personal computers can be difficult to read, because few people have five-and-a-half-inch floppy-disk drives anymore.

I think those computer scientists have got it wrong. The problem with paper documents is that they are forever vulnerable to destruction – from fire or flood, for example – because they exist in one place. I prefer electronic documents, which can be easily copied and “backed up” to different locations – different hard drives, different buildings, and even different states. And though it does require dedication to manage your life this way, today’s technology makes it easier than ever.

I bought my mother an Apple eMac with a high-speed Internet connection. Every day my family’s digital photo album is copied to her computer. Mom gets to see up-to-the-minute photos of her grandchildren, thanks to Apple’s marvelous screen saver, and I get reliable off-site backup. Other people I know simply send CD-ROMs to their parents every few months. Either way, the ease of making useful off-site backups demonstrates one of digital documents’ real advantages over paper.

Some of the paper documents that show up at my house, like credit card bills, annual tax statements, and even snapshots from my mother’s disposable camera, aren’t as easily rendered into digital form, of course. It’s all too tempting to throw them into a file cabinet or photo box. Moving them into the digital domain takes work; taking the extra step, and throwing away the paper original, used to require an act of faith. But digital documents are worth the effort, and we should all be creating them. These days, it’s relatively easy to understand which formats will survive and be readable in 20 years’ time and which are likely to go the way of the eight-track tape.

The key to survival, it turns out, is openness. File formats that are published and can be implemented without payment of a licensing fee – formats, that is, that embody the principles of open-source software – survive, because knowledge about how to read them can be freely incorporated into many applications. Other file formats die when the companies behind them stumble.

Two modern file formats likely to enjoy long-term durability are the Adobe Acrobat portable document format (PDF) and the JPEG image format. That’s because both of these formats are public, and there is a wide collection of software compatible with them. Yes, the source code for Acrobat itself is proprietary, but PDF files can be directly opened on the Macintosh platform without the use of any Adobe code. They can also be viewed on Linux machines with an open-source program called GhostScript. JPEG, meanwhile, is widely used by millions of digital cameras and practically every computer that’s sold today. I cannot imagine a future computer system that could not read the JPEG file format. Your digital photos are safe – provided that you have good backups.

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