Saturday, May 30, 2020

Resources for Preserving Digital Family Archives

Today, everyone creates and uses digital content. If you use a computer to write a novel or organize a spreadsheet, take photos or videos with a digital camera or phone, post status updates on Facebook or Twitter, send emails, or share photos with Instagram and Snapchat, you are creating digital content. 

Digital content is generally cheap to create and store, but difficult and expensive to preserve. Physical books and letters can survive untouched and ignored for hundreds of years, but ebooks and emails created 10 years ago may already be unusable and unrecoverable. In the SCHS collection, we have documents from the 1670s that still educate, inform, and inspire our community, but the files stored on floppy disks from the 1970s may never be seen again. In addition to the factors that cause physical deterioration (e.g. light, heat, water), digital files are susceptible to accidental deletion, obsolescence, and data corruption. Digital preservation is an on-going process that must be actively and regularly managed. 


One key distinction you should understand is the difference between digitization and digital preservation. Digitization is the process of turning the content contained in an analog item into a digital item. Scanning photos and documents, converting VHS tapes into DVDs, and photographing scrapbook pages are all forms of digitization. Digitization is a useful tool in preserving your physical materials. Digital copies of analog materials can be shared widely and accessed frequently which protects the analog original from damage from handling. For composite materials like scrapbooks, digitization captures details about the original artifact that are lost as the item deteriorates. Magnetic media like audio cassettes and VHS tapes have short lifespans and must be converted into a new format to preserve the content. Digitization is often the easiest method for preserving content.

The files that created through the process of digitization become part of your digital collection. You will likely preserve the original physical item in your collection, but that isn't always possible (e.g. newsprint and magnetic media). Taking steps to preserve the digital copy particularly important when the original items can not be preserved. The guidelines and resources in this post will help you preserve your digital collection, whether the files are born digital or created through digitization.

Resources for more information on digitizing your personal/family archive:

Basic rules for digital preservation
  • Identify what is in your digital collection, both the types of content and the file formats. You don't need to list every single file, but you should make notes that describe the different categories and give an idea of the size of the collection. Content means categories like photos, diaries, school records, taxes, research, and home videos of the kids. File formats can include PDF, JPG (or JPEG), TIFF, and MP3. There are many file formats and some of them are no longer used by currently available software, so you should note those formats in particular.
  • Identify and document where your digital collection is stored. Do you have hard drives, CDs, DVDs, or floppy disks? Are you able to access all of these storage formats (e.g. does your computer have a disk or floppy drive)? Many computer manufacturers stopped including disk drives or charge extra for them, but you may be able to purchase disk or floppy drives that plug into your computer's USB ports. Make notes about which storage formats you can't access because you lack the necessary hardware.
  • Consolidate your digital collection. Are your files stored across many devices like your computer, phone, camera, storage formats, and online platforms like email or Facebook? Move your files into one central location. Consolidation gives you a clearer picture of the size and complexity of your collection, makes it easier to back up your materials, and prevents accidental duplication. Social media and other websites should have instructions on how to download your content and save it to your computer.
  • Back up your digital collection. The recommended practice is the "3-2-1 rule"  -- save 3 copies of each file, save your collection on at least 2 types of storage devices, and store at least 1 of those storage devices in a separate location. Storage devices include computers, hard drives, and cloud storage. For example, if you save your digital collection on your computer and an external hard drive, store your external hard drive at a friend's house or safety deposit box. Cloud storage counts as a separate location as well as a storage device, so if you save your collection to your computer and a cloud service, you will be following the 3-2-1 rule. 
  • Check your files regularly. Make sure you can open them and the contents are unchanged. Check your files after each back up to be sure your storage devices are working properly, and check them at least once a year. You don't need to open every single file; you can spot check your collection by checking a sample of important files or a handful of each file type. Files that won't open (due to damage or corruption) can be replaced by one of the back-up copies. This is the purpose of saving 3 copies.
  • Use file names that describe the contents in a way that's meaningful and concise. Be consistent and descriptive. Avoid using spaces and special characters (e.g. ! @ $ , . #); use underscores (_) and dashes (-) to separate words and numbers if necessary.
  • Create folders (also called directories) that help you find files quickly and easily. Your file system shouldn't be complex with lots of folders-within-folders, but it does need to be clear to you and easy to use. 
  • Plan to upgrade your storage devices every 5-7 years. This seems to match the lifespan of most hard drives and the frequency of hardware development. 

Further resources

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