Thursday 30 November 2017

"Save your digital stuff!"

A blog post from Jenny Mitcham our Digital Archivist - written for International Digital Preservation Day

Most of us have a computer of some description (sometimes more than one!). Working with digital has become very much a part of our everyday life, but what do we do with the stuff that we create on the computer? How do we make sure that the important bits (those bits that we want to keep) are looked after for future generations?

Memories in the form of physical photographs have been handed down to children and grandchildren since the advent of photography, but now we create digital photographs (often with no intention of ever printing them out), how do we ensure they last as long as their analogue counterparts?

It is my job as a digital archivist to think about these sorts of things...but that doesn’t mean that everyone else shouldn’t be thinking about them too. The fragility of digital information should matter to all of us if we care about our personal and collective histories and the digital legacy that we want to leave behind.

Today is International Digital Preservation Day, a day that aims to: “create greater awareness of digital preservation that will translate into a wider understanding which permeates all aspects of society”

I think it is fair to say that many of us are better at looking after our physical things than our digital files. A couple of years ago I blogged about a personal example of this, discussing the different levels of care that even I apply to a physical photo book over the digital originals. Ironic really given my job description!

So today I’d like to talk about Personal Digital Archiving - not what I do in my job but what you can do to look after your digital stuff. 

What is a personal digital archive?

A personal digital archive doesn’t have to be anything formal or special, it doesn’t necessarily need to be visible or accessible to anyone other than you as the owner. It is your own collection of digital files that you have decided that you want to keep hold of, perhaps just for your own purposes or perhaps with the intention of handing them down to your children or grandchildren in the future.

Just like we may have kept physical photographs, film or audio recordings and correspondence in the past, now we keep digital photographs, digital video and audio and email.

But digital is by its very nature fragile. While we have the ability to keep many copies of the same thing we also have to guard against problems such as:

  • Hardware obsolescence (will there be a computer that can read this disk in ten years time?) 
  • Software obsolescence (will there be a programme that can open this file in ten years time?) 
  • Hard drive failure (my computer has died and I’ve lost everything!) 
  • Accidental damage (I’ve overwritten or deleted my files by mistake!) 
  • Malicious damage (a computer virus has corrupted all of my files!)

I found some of my old data from the 1990's in a bedside drawer. Does anyone else still have data stored on floppy disks?

We should all be taking some small steps to actively manage our digital stuff. If you care about it, don’t leave its survival to chance.

How to manage a personal digital archive?

The good news is, there are many things we can do as individuals to manage our own personal digital archives. All it takes is a little bit of time and thought and potentially some financial investment in a good backup or storage solution.

File and directory naming

Descriptive file naming and the use of logical directory structures will help ensure that you can locate your files when you need them. This doesn’t actually take a lot of time when it is done at the point of creation. Unfortunately it does take much longer when you have to go back and make sense of many years of accumulated digital ‘stuff’...or worse still if someone else has to sort through your digital legacy in the future.

Gone (thankfully!) are the days when we only had 8 characters with which to create our file names (and 3 additional characters with which to record the file extension). Back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was good reason why our filenames were cryptic, but today there is no excuse for not naming files in a descriptive and logical manner.

Happiness for me is knowing what a file is when I double click on it to open it up. This is such a basic thing but makes a real difference when you are trying to locate something. Having to open up lots of files in order to find the one you want is not only frustrating, but so easily avoidable.

Weeding and deleting

Storage is relatively inexpensive and this means it is all too easy to just keep things for the sake of it. If you keep everything you’ve ever created this will make it harder to find the really valuable things in the future. It is worth periodically checking over your digital files and weeding out those things that do not have longer term value and do not need to be kept. 

Storage and backing up

A reliable digital storage solution is key to managing your digital files. There are no hard and fast rules as to which type of storage is best but I have a few tips.

It is difficult to manage data that is scattered over numerous types of portable media. Portable media certainly has its fair share of problems. We were once told that CDs were indestructible but this is clearly not the case! USB sticks are handy to have but are also incredibly easy to lose. Other portable media types such as floppy disks are now obsolete - when did you last see a PC with a floppy disk drive? It is better to gather your digital files in one place where there is adequate space - your PC hard drive, a portable hard drive or a cloud service for example.

You should implement regular backups. It is very risky to have only one copy of the files that are important to you as they could easily get damaged, corrupted or stolen. You should ensure that files are backed up and stored elsewhere. Think about what would happen to your data if there was a fire, flood or break in at your home or office (note I had to think about just this a couple of years ago).

Make sure that you have other copies of your data elsewhere that you can access if you need to. You could use a cloud service provider for example or store a portable hard drive containing a copy of your files in a different location.

Whatever you choose to do, try not to make it too complex and if you can make use of an automated backup service, this can often be more robust and reliable than remembering to do it yourself!

Where do I find out more?

This post has only really touched on the very basics of managing your personal digital archives but there are so many great resources available on this topic if you want to explore this in more depth.

Firstly we have some good practice guidance on the Borthwick website for those people and organisations who are creating digital files - Managing your digital material: some good practice guidelines for donors and depositors. It was originally aimed at those who are intending on donating or depositing their material to an archive but the advice is applicable to anyone working with digital files.

Preserving your digital memories by The Library of Congress is a really helpful and easy to follow brochure. It gives tips on how to preserve some of the most common elements of a personal digital archive: Digital Photographs, Digital Audio, Digital Video, Electronic Mail, Personal Digital Records and Websites. It is really quick and easy to read with one side of key tips and pointers for each of these media types. Well worth a look.

Guidelines for creators of personal archives from the Paradigm project is a useful resource if you want to know more about file naming, documentation, file formats and backing up. From the same project, 11 top tips for preserving your personal data is a great quick reference guide to what you can do to manage your files and when you should do it.

Perspectives on Personal Digital Archiving is an fascinating and eclectic selection of blog posts from the Library of Congress relating to personal digital archiving, brought together into one publication. It includes ‘Four easy tips for preserving your digital photographs’ and an interesting piece called ‘Remember when we had photographs?’. In a call to action entitled ‘Forestalling personal digital doom’ the author states “Like organizing a closet, or rearranging a kitchen cabinet, personal digital archiving is easy to put off, easy to forget and easy to make excuses for avoiding.” Hopefully after browsing this selection of short essays you will be encouraged to tackle it head on!

Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories by the Council on Library and Information Resources is well worth a read if you are planning to offer your digital files to an archival institution or repository. It is aimed at both donors and repository staff and perhaps of particular interest in this context is appendix D which is a checklist of recommendations for donors and dealers.

Feeling inspired?

If this post has inspired you to do something to protect your digital legacy today, we’d love to hear about it! Add a comment to this post or Tweet to @UoYBorthwick with the #IDPD17 hashtag to tell us what you’ve done.

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