How’s your Personal Digital Archive?

How many images are there in your photo library? What are your plans to manage that library over the next 20+ years? Do you keep a separate archive of important images, video clips, and other documents for future reference?

I ask these questions because hardly anyone else does. We’ve all got sophisticated still and video cameras built into our phones, maybe something standalone for more serious photo/video work, and plenty of other means of generating tens, even hundreds of gigabytes of data each year. But where are we going to keep it all?

It used to be easy. When you got married, say, you hired a pro or bribed a friend to shoot some still photos, selected the best few dozen, and stuck them in a wedding album. From then on, whenever you wanted to get rid of unwanted guests, you knew that showing them your old wedding photos would do the trick.

Children were not dissimilar: by the time that they left home, they’d have a few albums with photos of their childhood friends, holidays, and birthday occasions.

It is now easy to shoot well over a thousand images a year; if you have children or travel much, that can readily rise to two to five thousand per year. Add a few hundred video clips, a year’s-worth of your more important email messages and other documents, and you are quite probably accumulating many thousands of important files per year. If you’re thirty years old now and expect to keep this up for the next thirty years or more, you’ll end up with well over a hundred thousand documents by the time you’re sixty. And that’s before you start shooting 360˚ VR or whatever the next craze will be.

Recently I have had a series of questions from Mac users with more than ten thousand images in their photo libraries. These are not professional photographers, just regular users who use cameras to record their life, travels, friends, and children. They are currently using consumer apps – iPhoto or Photos – to try to manage those libraries, which are growing inexorably over time.

Not only have they not planned to manage their image archives, but I am unable to point them towards any affordable app which might help them do so.

The rate at which most of us are accumulating still images, video, and other content, we should really be looking at what is currently termed a digital asset management (DAM) system. These are available for organisations like museums and galleries, commercial image libraries, and large corporations. They are neither priced for nor aimed at consumers.

There aren’t even any particularly good storage solutions available. The big players, including Apple, are mad keen on selling us cloud storage, which is fine for sharing our current images and documents, but hardly a good or cost-effective solution for archives. In the absence of any built-in optical drives, you’d need an external Blu-ray burner and archival quality media to do the job properly, and at significant cost.

The biggest problem, though, is that content libraries are not designed to work with libraries that are partially offline. Assuming that you are assiduous in maintaining the metadata of your accumulating images and content, those metadata need to be kept online even when the associated images are archived offline. When Uncle Jim dies, and you’re putting together the programme for his funeral service, you want to know exactly where to look in your archive to find that image of him at your eighteenth birthday party.

Even if you’ve paid lots of money for a DAM system, archival storage, and solved the problem of searching the metadata for offline content, apps like Photos aren’t designed to export an archive library complete with its metadata. In fact, Apple, Adobe, and the other vendors that we look to are as unprepared to help you cope with this relentless onslaught of new images as you are.

I’m rather hoping that a company with better vision for our future needs might come up with a solution. And preferably before I get messages from users struggling with twenty thousand images in their Photos library.