Inkjet Wars 2: Preserving Your Prints

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It's a very good idea to buy inkjet inks and papers that can make your documents and photo prints last. But what's the best way to preserve for future reference those documents you've already printed -- which may not always have been produced with the highest-quality supplies?

In this space last week, I wrote about some of the questions businesses need to ask themselves when buying printer consumables: Will cheap, third-party inks damage our printers? Are low-cost supplies truly a bargain?

Most businesses have already printed a large number of documents and photos. The preservation of those printouts may be just as important to you as the shekels you shell out to produce future ones.

Reprinting Versus Preserving Your Documents

Oddly enough, the printouts you produce today may last longer than the hard drive that holds your digital documents and images.

Although no one seems to think the hard disk in their personal computer will ever die, today's hard disks can become useless in surprisingly few years. For example, IBM estimates a service life of 3.4 years for its 2.5-inch Travelstar drive, according to a PDF report by CALCE (Computer Aided Life Cycle Engineering Electronic Products and Systems Center at the University of Maryland).

If your strategy to preserve your faded documents and photographs is simply to print new copies someday, you'll be out of luck if the drive that holds your originals suddenly crashes and you have no backup. Usable data can often be recovered from crashed disks, but consultants who specialize in this process can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. A well-planned backup policy is much cheaper.

Preservation of documents that are in your own hands isn't your only problem, however. You probably print documents and photos in order to send them to clients, colleagues, and friends. If your printouts turn orange (due to the cyan ink fading) or greenish (from the magenta ink fading), the recipients of your hard copies aren't likely to get back to you for replacements.

Everyone's seen one-year-old fax paper with printing that's faded so much as to be virtually unreadable. I occasionally even see dot-matrix printouts from some retail cash registers that I can hardly read the minute I've left the store.

Documents produced by today's inkjet printers aren't nearly as bad as that. But there are a few preservation steps you should be aware of.

The Enemies Of Document Preservation

CreativeMemories.com, a manufacturer of photo albums, describes six factors that can damage or fade inkjet printouts:

High temperatures.
High humidity.
Ozone and other atmospheric pollutants.
Exposure to water.
Sunlight, florescent lighting, and incandescent lighting.
Abrasion, as when rough materials rub against printouts.

Not surprisingly, Creative Memories recommends that photographs be kept in albums with nonacidic backing papers covered with nondamaging plastic sheets -- the kind of albums it makes. These albums and other storage containers for inkjet-produced documents should be kept away from overheated attics and damp basements.

The company provides a number of good recommendations for preserving documents in a free PDF document entitled "A Consumer Guide to Traditional and Digital Print Stability."

Putting Your Printed Collection On Ice

Wilhelm Imaging Research is a company that's noted for its extensive testing of inkjet inks and papers. For maximum preservation of important documents and photographs, Wilhelm actually recommends that the materials be frozen solid.

Sub-freezing temperatures, far from damaging these hard copies, preserves their lifespans as much as 1,000 times, according to Wilhelm. For example, Kodak Ektachrome Professional films, widely used in the 1970s, will suffer slightly noticeable fading (10 percent) in only five years at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But when frozen at -4 degrees F., this amount of fading won't occur for 2,100 years, Wilhelm says in a PDF report.

Companies in the business of preserving printed materials, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corbis-Bettman Archive (with its 13 million photographs), have taken this technique to heart. The archive actually moved its entire New York City collection underground in 2001 -- to Iron Mountain in western Pennsylvania, as described in a Washington Post Magazine article. The materials now rest in sub-zero suspended animation, after many of them are digitally scanned for ease of access.

Preserving Your Own Hard Copies

You can't expect to lengthen the life of your own documents and photos by packing them away, say, in your own refrigerator or freezer. Those spaces are too damp. Using quality papers and inks, and storing documents in reasonably cool, dry, and dark places, should be enough to provide 100-year stability for most output.

But which of the myriad inks and papers on the market today are worthy of your budgetary dollar?

Next week, I'll describe products from both the major manufacturers and small, independent producers -- and what the latest tests show about their respective quality.

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