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Gold, Silver and the Test of Time

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Who doesn't like looking at pictures from a century ago? A lot changes in a hundred years and it is fascinating to have that glimpse back. In a hundred years what will there be to look back on? With the ubiquity of the digital camera there is more visual documentation of these early years of the 21st century than any previous period in history. But what will happen to all those billions of digital pictures? In a hundred years there will be no-one finding shoe boxes of their ancestors' holidays.

"Yeah, but they'll be finding my old CD's and DVD's" you say? Perhaps that's true, but will they be able to do anything with them? Changes in technology notwithstanding (I have, as I write this, data on 5¼" floppies and &frac34" professional VHS tapes, hell, I might even still have some 8-track tapes in a box somewhere) chances are that those discs will not be readable even if the hardware and software is available. The perception is out-there that once something is on a CD or DVD it is archived forever and that is regretably false.

Left: a fairly new silver CD

Right: a tarnished silver CD that's only about 2 years old

The problem with writable CD's and DVD's is in the reflective layer. Most of the discs out there use silver because it is relatively inexpensive and highly reflective - for a while. Silver tarnishes. As the illustration to the right shows, this doesn't take long. A recordable DVD can become unreadable inside a year and a CD can "rot" in as little as two or three years. How many graduations, weddings, vacations, memories and artworks are already lost? What can you do?

For some time now I have only been buying gold-foil CD's - ever since I had a CD of photographs become unreadable. Gold does not tarnish. Certainly it is more expensive, a gold CD-R is about twice as much as an ordinary silver one, but the data is going to stay intact for two or three centuries rather than years. Twice the price is a good bargain for one hundred times the lifespan.

Lately the CD's have been proving inadequate on another level, though. Now that I am regularly using 2 GB and 4 GB cards in my cameras  I'm quite literally burning through at least one CD every time I have a shoot. It's easy enough to burn the two or three CD's necessary, and the expense isn't worth mentioning, especially in comparison to what I spend when I shoot film or I'm doing a painting. It's the storage space and retrieval that is becoming cumbersome, so getting nearly five times that capacity from a DVD in the same physical space is compelling.

Earlier this week I went looking for archival quality (i.e. gold) DVD's. I couldn't find any anywhere nearby. Outfits like Staples, London Drugs, etc. don't carry gold DVD's. I presume that is because at a cost (taxes and levy in) of about $3.50 per disc people who are not aware that what they put on a regular DVD could be gone in a year aren't buying the 100-year discs.

Shelling out $350 for a spindle of 100 gave me pause, I'll admit. However, archival DVD storage works out to only 0.072¢/MB compared to 0.139¢/MB for the archival CD's. In terms of price/MB/year the CD's are still a better deal with their 300 year lifespan compared to the century the DVD's are good for, but I'm willing to trade one fifth the physical space requirements against three times the archival longevity. I expect that when the DVD's pass to my heirs they'll likely copy them to whatever new media the late 21st century will have to offer anyway.

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