You paste old photographs in the family album and squirrel away the notes you passed in eighth grade. But are you preserving your electronic materials -- digital photographs, documents and other keepsakes of the cyber realm -- as faithfully? Personal e-mail can make a de facto diary. Recipes, school assignments, home movies, personal Web pages, even instant messenger chats -- all these things may be of interest to you down the road, not to mention to your grandchildren (or biographers). It's easier than you think: With a computer disk burner, a dreary weekend and a little bit of organizational gumption, you can preserve your memories for the ages.
BACK THAT THING UP. Thinking long-term storage is hard given how often the computer industry changes its file formats -- as anyone who has tried recently to open a WordStar document can attest. To avoid nasty surprises a decade down the line, your best bet is to go for open formats, which are widely used because they are not owned by any one company. For example, if that WordStar document had been saved in ASCII, the computer industry's standard for plain text files, it could still be read today. Look at the options in the "Save As" field -- one will likely be an open format such as ASCII (for word processing documents and e-mail), JPEG (for photos), MPEG (for movies), QIF (for checkbook programs) or simple tabs and comma-based text files (for spreadsheets).
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THE LONG HAUL. A file you can't access because it resides on an obsolete physical medium -- think eight track tapes or those large floppy disks -- won't do you much good (except maybe as a coaster). Fred Byers, an IT specialist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, suggests burning CDs or DVDs. They are popular (which means they'll be around for a while); newer optical disk readers usually can read older disks and the disks themselves can last for dozens of years if well cared for. (Keep them dry, away from direct sunlight and store vertically if possible.) Byers also recommends making two copies using disks from different manufacturers, in case you get a bad batch from one. Transfer all archived files to the latest physical medium at least every 10 years.
GET METHODICAL. Label your folders and disks in a way that will make sense to you in the future ("European Tour 2004"). Do you want a disk for all the material you generate each year or a separate disk for different kinds of files? It may take months to build up enough e-mail or photos to give their own dedicated disk, while a short home movie in MPEG-2 can take up an entire one.
BURN, BABY, BURN. Burning material to the disk itself is a snap, thanks to built-in tools most operating systems now have. There's also advanced programs, such as those from Roxio (www.roxio.com) or Nero (www.nero.com), that help organize material into folders. One warning: Do not compress files to save space. You may not be able to decompress them in 2015. Software that allows you to organize your archive across multiple disks, like Genie-Soft (www.genie-soft.com), can be handy as well, but test it by trying to open the files directly without using the backup program. Joab Jackson
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