Lagos, Nigeria

If It’s All Digital, Won’t You Lose It Anyway? – Ask Leo!

If you do, you’re not doing it right.

A page out of an old photo album. Click for larger image. (Image: Leo Notenboom.)

A single original of anything is not backed up, and backing up is significantly easier, and of higher quality, in digital media.

The Best of Ask Leo!

I had a thought about everything being digital: is there a chance that important information can be lost? From important and historical information to irreplaceable pictures, etc. I was holding a picture of me from 1980 (yes, genuine film). Had there been digital scanners and fast enough computers back then, the 5¼-inch disk would be unreadable by today’s drives. The disk would probably have errors, if you could find a used hard drive to even read it for your precious memories. Never mind historians, scholars, and the young storing all of their Facebook information in the Cloud only. I use external media and more than one type. I don’t know anyone who backs up a single thing, no matter how many speeches I give them.

Yes, it’s true.

I hear about it every day: digital information can be lost quite easily.

But I don’t see that as an indictment of digital technology at all. In fact, digital data opens up many more possibilities for data retention than it closes.

My grandfather’s photographs

Digital can be lost easily — but then, so can film.

Many years ago my mother and I traveled to her birthplace in The Netherlands. It was my first trip overseas and my first chance to meet many of my relatives. We were to stay in her childhood home, still occupied by her parents.

The night before we arrived, there was a fire. While the building didn’t burn down completely, there was extensive damage. We ended up staying with my aunt and uncle instead.

One of my grandfather’s hobbies was photography. As I understand it, he was one of the earliest to play with photography in his area.

The vast majority of his photographs, some dating back several decades, were lost in the fire — photographs (and other memorabilia) that my mother had been looking forward to sharing with me.

If there’s only one…

It doesn’t have to be fire. Photos can be lost or damaged in any number of ways. Aside from scratches, fingerprints, and fading, there are bends, tears, and foxing on the edges. That’s why historians take such precious care of original material.

The problem is that in many cases there is only one original. Additional copies, if they exist at all, often lose some amount of quality in the duplication process.

If something happens to the original, it’s gone.

The only way to “back up” an original is to take the time to make a generally inferior duplicate.

Digital assets needn’t be lost

Your argument is really about backing up.

Too many people don’t back up. When they lose precious data, they blame the technology.

Fortunately, digital records give us more opportunities to protect precious memories than ever before.

To begin with, a digital copy of a digital original does not lose any quality. It’s a 100% pristine copy of the original — they’re essentially indistinguishable from one another. There are no scratches, tears, or other physical damage to contend with.

In addition, digital photographs can be duplicated trivially easily and quickly — no trip to Fotomat required.

While storage media can and does change over time, it’s easy to ensure that your photographs are always kept in current technologies, and even in the cloud, where they can also be backed up: safe no matter what happens in your home.

Saving those memories

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of digital for all these reasons and more. I have well over a terabyte of photographs. They’re all backed up on at least a couple of machines here at home, as well as online in DropBox.

For example, the image accompanying this article is taken from a high-resolution scan of one of my parents’ photo albums. The woman on the left is my grandmother, and the image on the right is of a swimming class in progress.

I can’t recreate a new original, but I can back up what I have. Included in that terabyte are scans of almost all the old photo albums that escaped the fire.

Please consider preserving your own precious memories, and backing them up, in a similar way.

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This post was written by Leo Notenboom and was first posted to

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