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How can we be sure we'll remember our digital past?

As technology evolves, data from outmoded machines is put at risk; panel addresses pathways and costs.

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Across the Atlantic, the European Union launched its own push for preservation in June 2006.

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Known as Planets, the four-year effort by several national libraries hopes to save the $4.3 billion worth of European data that's "at risk of digital obsolescence," reports the project.

Bursting with digital data of your own? Four ways to store it.

While government and industry spend the next few yearsthinking about large-scale digital preservation, computer experts say households should start protecting their files now.

"Only 10 to 30 percent of consumers back up their stuff, and really it's closer to 10," says Natalie Del Conte, senior editor for the technology news and reviews website CNET.com. "Everyone knows somebody who's lost all their files, yet we're still lazy."

So what's the best storage option for families? There have been countless formats that were once popular but now passé. (Remember Zip drives?) How do you pick one that will last at least until your next computer? At the moment, there are four key storage formats out there: discs (CD-Rs or DVD-Rs), external hard drives, solid-state drives, and online storage. Picking which is best for you is really a personal preference.

Just as cars no longer have tape decks, computers may one day stop shipping with CD drives. (Apple's new MacBook Air doesn't come with one.) While we are all comfortable with discs, they are inherently limited by the fact they only come in one size: 4-3/4 in. Manufacturers can squeeze more information onto a disc, but then you get into tricky format wars over whose new approach is best.

Inside an external hard drive is a spinning magnetic disc. That whirring sound your hard disc makes when it's moving large files is the physical churning of the drive. These twirlers are clunky, loud, and shouldn't be jostled (the magnetic pen that writes the data could scrape the wrong part of the disc).

Solid-state memory, however, has no moving parts – it's basically a circuit with a chip attached. It is silent, smaller, but vastly more expensive. Because of this price-per-gigabyte equation, you probably can't back up your whole music collection on an affordable flash drive. However, small, solid-state "thumb drives" have become the new cheap floppy discs. Digital cameras can fit one GB on a card the size of a nickel. And Apple can now cram 16 GB of solid-state memory into its iPhone. Nonetheless, consumers can buy more than 10 times that much storage for the same price with standard spinning hard drives. Just look at the 160 GB iPod model, or several thousand gigabyte hard drives that go into today's powerhouse PCs.

Because of this price difference, Ms. Del Conte suggests that families invest in an 80-gigabyte external hard drive. "It's the most affordable, and it's a good jumping-off point," she says. Price: around $100. Make sure that the drive works with USB plugs, which she says won't become obsolete anytime soon. Or, if your computer can use FireWire plugs, it's a faster connection.

The newest option, online storage, has been possible for years. But many people have simply not warmed to the idea of storing all their songs and pictures on someone else's machine. For the tech-savvy crowd, Microsoft offers a Home Server that can store files from every computer in the house. "But if I tried to explain that to my mother, her head would explode," jokes Del Conte. Know your needs, and buy with care.