Physical Threats

Digital storage media and hardware are subject to numerous internal and external forces that can damage or destroy their readability:

Media Threats: Storage Issues
  • material instability
  • improper storage environment (temperature, humidity, light, dust)
  • overuse (mainly for physical contact media)
  • natural disaster (fire, flood, earthquake)
  • infrastructure failure (plumbing, electrical, climate control)
  • inadequate hardware maintenance
  • hardware malfunction
  • human error (including improper handling)
  • sabotage (theft, vandalism)

Storage Issues

Improper storage may be the most common reason for premature media failure. Moderation of temperature and humidity are well known to extend the usable life of most storage media, but many other factors can help, too.

Suggested Preservation Action
  • Maintain consistent temperature ~ 20 deg C (68 deg F) (see the IPI Media Storage Quick Reference for specific guidelines).
  • Maintain relative humidity around 40%.
  • Avoid large and rapid fluctuations in temperature/humidity.
  • Control dust (maintain a slight positive pressure environment).
  • Avoid exposure to magnetic fields (for magnetic media).
  • Avoid exposure to fumes.
  • Establish a no food, drink, or smoking policy in media storage areas.
  • Store media in closed metal cabinets, electrically grounded.
  • Shelve media vertically (not stacked).
  • Store media in their original cases.
  • Minimize exposure to sunlight and UV from light fixtures.
  • Allow media to acclimate to new temperature and humidity before using.
  • Return to controlled storage immediately after use.

Preparation Matters



Physical threats from natural disasters, infrastructure failure, and malicious destruction usually can't be predicted, but it is possible to lessen their occurrence and minimize the damage they cause with proper preparation. Notification the moment a hazardous condition has arisen allows the fastest possible response. Sensors and alarm systems to detect and report the presence of fire, heat, smoke, water leaks and unauthorized entry are available. Fire suppression systems, floor drains, and use of heat-resistant and/or waterproof storage can all help minimize damage to sensitive media and equipment. Media storage areas should be locked  and accessible only to properly trained personnel. All media, no matter how reliable, needs to be backed up. Creation of multiple backups and the use of off-site storage for one set of copies provides the best protection against catastrophic loss.

Handling Issues

Another major threat to storage media comes from improper handling. Though many digital media give the impression of sturdiness and durability, they can be damaged by too casual an approach to use. Observe these recommendations:

Suggested Preservation Action
>> Don't open shutters designed to protect media in cartridges.
>> Handle media with lint-free gloves to minimize dust.
>> Clean and dry hands before handling media.
>> Don't touch exposed media surfaces (e.g., handle CDs at edges).
>> Keep media in their cases except when in use.
>> Place labels only in approved areas; write on label before applying.
>> CDs should be labeled only on the top surface with approved markers.
>> Avoid flexing CDs and DVDs.
>> Don't leave media in drive after use.
>> Re-tension magnetic tapes after use and every 1-3 years even if not used.
>> Limit media access to properly trained staff.
>> Use write-once or recordable (rather than rewritable) media.
>> Set write-protect tabs, if available.

Life Expectancy

A lot of ink has been spilled over the issue of media longevity. Media consumers and producers have placed a great deal of emphasis on seeking and promoting high longevity media. Ultimately, however, for a great many reasons, longevity is overrated as a desirable media characteristic.

>> Media life expectancy claims are statistical averages based on accelerated aging tests and can only provide a rough estimate of how long any particular piece of media will last under certain storage and handling.
>> Longevity provides no protection against many media threats, including theft, natural disasters, infrastructure failures, and accidental handling damage.
>> Media technology changes so rapidly that high longevity media is likely to be threatened by obsolescence before its useful life is over.
Suggested Preservation Action

A better strategy is to take steps to maximize the intrinsic longevity of standard longevity media.

>> Adhere to good storage and handling practices.
>> Buy quality media.
>> Take note of media manufacturer and batch numbers so performance and quality trends can be tracked.
>> Don't overbuy.
>> Remember that some unrecorded media has a shorter shelf life than recorded media (optical & magneto-optical in particular).
>> Buy media designed for the speed and capacity of the drives in which it will be used.
Suggested Preservation Action

All media needs periodic testing to confirm data integrity. At a minimum this should include procedures to:

  • Confirm fidelity of all media immediately after recording.
  • Once recorded, read samples (by batch code and manufacturer and/or storage location) of entire media and samples of files from several media on a periodic basis.
  • Determine indications of problems with specific batches, manufacturers, or storage conditions and more extensive testing within those categories.
  • Test blank media (can be expensive and time-consuming).
  • Monitor use of error correction and replace media before errors become uncorrectable.

Specific Media Issues

Hard disk drives

  • Highly commoditized. Expect to pay more for quality drives with above average reliability.
  • Don't buy excess capacity. Prices and technology change extremely rapidly.
  • Don't expect more than five years use from any hard disk drive.
  • High temperature can dramatically reduce life expectancy. Control the environment and make sure fans are working and not clogged with dust.

Magnetic tape

  • The most commonly used backup medium.
  • New technologies offer extremely high density storage.
  • High density cartridge technologies (SDLT, LTO, AIT) considered the most reliable.
  • New generations of tape formats appear regularly. Backward compatibility is usually only offered for 1-2 generations.

Optical (CD/DVD variants)

  • These media have several possible failure modes
    • Dye layer (for recordable media)
      • best stability/compatibility compromise is metal-stabilized cyanine (blue-green)
      • phthalocyanine (pale blue) and metalized azo (deep blue) also good
      • color can be deceiving—don’t use it as definitive sign of a dye layer
    • Reflective layer
      • gold most stable
      • silver and alloys becoming more common (because they're cheaper, not because they’re better)
      • Rewritable media uses aluminum; recordable media can’t use aluminum due to reactivity with dye layer
    • Substrate separation
  • Unrecorded media has 5-10 year shelf life
  • Top surface (label area) of CDs requires extra care, as it is more vulnerable than the bottom layer
  • CD/DVD cleaning should be done axially (i.e. outer edge to inner edge), not radially or along the tracks
  • DVDs are more vulnerable to flexing damage due to closer track spacing. Use special DVD carriers to minimize flexing upon removal

Disaster Recovery

The methods and procedures already mentioned are designed to minimize casual loss of data and maximize media longevity. However, even if you had perfect storage conditions and impeccable handling protocols, some media would still fail. Therefore, valuable data must be stored redundantly, that is, backed up, on more than one piece of media. In addition, backups and disaster recovery plans are needed to avoid catastrophic media loss from causes such as:

  • sabotage (theft, vandalism, malicious modification/erasure, viruses, terrorist attack etc)
  • natural disaster (fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, infrastructure failure)

A disaster recovery plan that deals specifically with information technology infrastructure is needed. Developing such a plan is not a one-time process; it has to be tested and modified as changing circumstances dictate. Revisit the disaster recovery plan for events such as new staff, new or reorganized physical plant, or new equipment. Once a disaster recovery plan is in place, take steps to prevent catastrophes and minimize damage from them.

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) publishes an excellent guide to developing and implementing plans to cope with disasters entitled “Contingency Planning Guide for Information Technology Systems."


The maintenance of redundant copies of valued digital content is an essential component of any digital preservation program, and a key element in the prevention of catastrophic loss. A great variety of backup solutions are available. Which to use depends on:

  • quantity of data
  • rate of change
  • degree of automation desired
  • available budget

n addition to backing up data files, application software and operating systems may also need backup. In some cases, it may be necessary to purchase additional licenses or obtain special permission from the software vendor in order to back up applications.

In addition to testing backup media periodically to ensure the data is still readable and has not been altered, restore procedures should also be tested to ensure that the hardware, software and any outside vendors involved in maintaining backups are all functioning as expected.

A prudent backup strategy places at least one copy of all critical data at a sufficient distance from the main data store so that it is not likely to succumb to the same disaster. This is called off-site storage. Institutions should check with regulatory agencies for their records retention requirements. Medical and financial records may have more rigorous requirements for the distance of the off-site storage facility from the main facility. Establishing a reciprocal storage arrangement with a cooperating institution may be a low-cost way to manage off-site storage. If outsourcing, make sure you are getting true data management, not just warehousing. Generic storage facilities are unlikely to know how to properly store and handle digital media. Environmental controls and handling protocols should be at least as rigorous as those at the main facility.

An important consideration in selecting a backup strategy is the possibility of loss of the entire primary facility (all equipment and data) to a disaster. In such a situation, it will be necessary to replace the entire IT infrastructure and to restore the secondary data store to new equipment. If new equipment that can handle the backup media, the restoration software, and the applications software and operating environment needed to access the data cannot be purchased, it may be time to rethink the backup plan.

Emergency Rescue

A lapse in planning or circumstances beyond one’s control can lead to emergency rescue of critical data. Anything from budget woes to bad luck can provide the trigger. Companies exist that specialize in salvaging data from badly damaged media (when no backup exists) and reading data from obsolete storage technology. These services can often be quite expensive, but can also be a lifesaver. A Web search for "data recovery" should produce a plethora of links to these specialized companies.

Check out these resources.