Computer File Archives

Fast-forward 10 or 20 years. For decades, your life is on your computer: recordings, family pictures, writings, address book, recordings, and on and on.

Can you access them?

There's format. Some formats are open enough that there will always be working tools; , others aren't. Can you open your old MS Word documents? Can you play your .aac music files?

Also: organization. Will iPhoto still be around to read the file structure? Will your cloud storage provider still be in business? Where exactly are these files?

And: backup. We all struggle with that.

Protect your archives!

My (partly aspirational) policies:


I believe the filesystem is rock-solid. Search-and-find systems may be added to it, but a sensibly-named file in a logical folder will probably still be there.

It's an extra step, but I convert photo filenames to YYMMDD_HHMM (using this) so they will alphabetize chronologically in the finder. iPhoto has an obfuscated file structure; I worry it will just lose them.

I check the Keep iTunes folder organized preference in iTunes. If I have time I troll through and try and get the metadata clean.

I keep local mirros of my files as much as possible (using this), and regard cloud storage as backup.

File formats

Best guesses:


If you can read it in a text editor, you're good.

.txt, vanilla plain text ascii, is awesomely simple and solid. Suitable for journal entries, notes, computer code.

.html and .rtf are simple markup and pretty safe.

.pdf is probably ok, but less clearly so.

.doc* makes me nervous.


.wav and .aiff are uncompressed and totally safe.

.mp3 has made the leap to universal/nearly open and I trust it to be readable indefinitely. Also mp3's keep metadata right in the file, so go ahead and edit it the way you like it; it'll survive.

.aac MUCH LESS CLEAR. I strongly suggest changing the default import settings in iTunes to convert to mp3 at highest quality.


.jpg's are compressed but, like mp3's, pretty safe.

.tiff is uncompressed and thus safe.

I prefer .png to .gif where possible.

Photoshop format I don't completely trust.