Personal Digital Archiving Guide Part 1: Preservation Planning

Photo of text reading:

Epigraph from The End Games by T. Michael Martin

Unlike the physical stuff we collect that constitutes a meaningful record of our lives, our digital materials require active intervention if we want to be able to continue to use them over time. We can stick old letters and family photos in a shoebox at the back of the closet and expect that when we open that box in 10 years we’ll still be able to read them. But that’s a much riskier assumption for digital files because of their complex technological dependencies. Technology is constantly changing, as are the formats that structure the files themselves. In 10 years, the files we create today and the disk drives they reside on may be unrecognizable to future computer environments. The more we use these files or transfer them from one technology to another, the greater the potential for data corruption. Digital files also run the risk of deletion due to accident or disaster. Having a preservation plan can mitigate the risks of obsolescence, erasure, or other forms of data loss.

Digital files are essentially similar regardless of the media format. Whether the files contain text, audio, or video content, they are all made up of sequences of data bits (1s and 0s), bundled as formats according to their media type, and made accessible by particular software and hardware. This post presents some simple suggestions for organizing digital files for long-term preservation based on recommendations from the Library of Congress. The next post will cover particular types of digital media, such as photos or audio recordings, in more detail.

From the start, it’s important to emphasize that we all create, use, and reuse our personal data in individual ways. Do what makes the most sense to you to manage your own digital materials. Even if it’s not practical for you to follow all of these steps, any amount of effort to preserve your digital material is better than none!

Preservation Steps for Personal Digital Collections:

Identify: What digital materials do you want to save? Think in terms of both content (school papers, taxes, vacation photos, etc.) and formats (Word or PDF documents, JPEG image files, MP3 audio files, etc.). It may help to make a list or inventory of the categories of digital files that you expect to still be able to access in 10 years.

Gather: Where are the digital files you want to keep? In addition to your computer, think about all the other places they may be: your phone, digital camera, portable storage devices such as USB thumb drives, CDs/DVDs, social media, email or web services. Gather all of the files you want to save onto one hard drive. Copy them off of mobile or external devices (It’s always a good idea to do this as soon as possible after creating them). If there is content you want to save that’s on a social media site or in your email, download or copy it to your hard drive (Most sites and email services have instructions for downloading your data in their Help sections).

Select: Define the scope of your digital collection: Are you interested in saving every digital file you have, or just the most important? For some people, every social media post may be valuable. For others, only particular posts are meaningful in the long-term, or perhaps the entirety of your online presence is as ephemeral to you as casual conversation. It may be productive to consider what you would really be sorry to lose if all your files were accidentally deleted.

Organize: Your digital files aren’t accessible unless you can find them and know what they are. Adding descriptive information (metadata) to the file name, or embedding it in the file itself, will help you navigate your digital collection. Contextual information about the file, such as how, when, and where it was created or last changed, may be embedded in the file itself by the software that made the file. You can also add additional metadata, such as tags or keywords that make your files easier to find in a search. Depending on your operating system, there are various ways for viewing and editing metadata (I’ll go over some of these methods in Part 3 of this series).

Naming files: Give your files short, meaningful names. Structure your file names however you want, but be consistent. This will make it easier to identify and differentiate between your files at a glance. For some people, having the date at the beginning of the name is helpful for sorting files chronologically (“YYYY-MM-DD” is the standard date format), but it may be more useful for you to group file names by the subject or event that the files relate to. It’s generally a good idea not to make file names too long, and to avoid spaces (use underscore “_” instead) and odd characters such as ! # $ % & ‘ @ ^ ` ~ + , . ; =. Some computers have a hard time parsing long file names and special symbols. Make the names as concise but descriptive as possible.

Creating files: The best time to add metadata to your files is when you first create them, as this is when you have the most information about why they were created. It’s not always convenient to name every photo you take on vacation while you’re actually there experiencing it, but consider keeping a running notepad or text document with brief notes so that you can add more detail later.

Directory structure: How you organize your directories (file folders) to group your files together can also ensure that they remain accessible. As with file naming conventions, the system you use doesn’t matter as much as being consistent and choosing folder names that accurately reflect the contents. Try to avoid too many layers of folders-within-folders if possible.

Back-up Storage: When your digital files are gathered on one hard drive and organized so you know what they are, it’s time to back them up. Follow the 3-2-1 Rule developed by professional photographers to back up their digital photo collections:

3: Make 3 copies. One copy can be the files on your hard drive, but also make 2 additional copies of all the files you want to save.

2: At least 2 of the copies should be on 2 different types of storage media. If one copy is on your computer’s hard drive, and another is on an external hard drive, the third could be in cloud storage. (I’ll write more about storage options in Part 3 of this series.)

1: Store 1 of the copies in a different location from the other 2 copies. In the case of a house fire or other disaster, you’ll want to have a back-up in a different geographic location. This could be an external hard drive that you keep at your office or mail to a relative in another state.

Maintenance: Digital preservation is an ongoing process. Technology and file formats change over time, so periodically check your files to ensure that they remain accessible in the current digital environment and update your storage as technology changes. Monitoring your files can be as simple as spot-checking some of the most important files by opening them up to ensure that they still display as expected.

Checking files: First check your files immediately after backing them up, to make sure they’ve correctly copied over to the storage media. If not, erase the copy and try again. It’s much better to find out whether your storage is defective when you first use it than when it’s your only remaining back-up. You should continue to spot-check storage files about once a year.

Updating storage: Storage device technology changes frequently. Larger, cheaper storage options become available every year. Manufacturers of storage devices recommend updating your long-term digital storage to a new storage device every 5–7 years, as this seems to be how often significant upgrades in technology occur.

If the prospect of selecting and organizing your backlog of digital files seems daunting and impractical in the short term, focus on gathering and back-up. Just keep in mind that the back-ups will not remain useful if your files are disorganized and storage access is not monitored over time. Check back to the Bits and Pieces blog in the next few days for tips about media types and formats (Part 2), as well as storage options and online resources (Part 3).

April 23–29 is Preservation Week, an initiative of ALA’s Association for Library Collections & Technical Services to raise awareness of issues related to preserving our cultural heritage materials. The University of Michigan Library is hosting several upcoming preservation events:

  • Thursday, April 27, 4–7pm at Hatcher Library Gallery:Preserving History, drop-in Preservation Clinic (open to all). UM preservation experts will be on hand to offer advice on how to care for your personal materials. Digital Preservation Librarian Lance Stuchell will be available to answer your questions about personal digital archiving.
  • Friday, May 5, 3–5pm at Shapiro Library Instructional Lab (4041): Registration is full for the Enriching Scholarship session Personal Digital Archiving: Preservation Strategies for Your Digital Data, but you can add your name to the wait list in case a spot opens up. The Bentley Historical Library’s Assistant Archivist for Digital Curation Max Eckard and I will present a workshop on personal digital archiving strategies, demonstrate some PDA tools, and answer your digital preservation questions.

Scott Witmer is the Digital Preservation Specialist at the University of Michigan Library