How to preserve your family or community archive: the Covid-19 lockdown blogs. Blog DP #1

  • Are all your treasured family photos digital?
  • Does your community archive include CDs and scans?

Digital documents can be easily shared and copied, and take up no physical space.  But the very characteristics which make them so convenient also present us with risks and challenges.  There is no single, magic bullet solution which can protect your digital material or ensure it will last for decades.  But the good news is that there some simple, low tech, no/low cost steps you can take to manage and minimise the risks.

Know your enemy! Let’s start by looking at the risks in more detail.  With hard copy documents, you can usually spot signs of trouble, such as papers becoming damp.  In contrast, you are unlikely to be aware of issues with a digital file until you try- and fail- to open it.  And the fact that large amounts of data can be stored on small, portable devices increases both the likelihood of loss and its severity.

Some risks are ever present and could happen at any time, from the moment a digital file is created.  Others are associated with keeping digital material into the longer term.

Ever present risks:

  • Hardware failure- for example, you drop your laptop or your hard drive fails
  • Theft or loss of hardware
  • Storage media, such as CDs, can degrade making it impossible to access the digital information they carry
  • Digital documents can very easily be deleted, changed, or accessed inappropriately, either maliciously, or more likely accidentally

Longer term issues:

  • Changing technology can cause hardware and software to become obsolete. For example, could your current PC read a floppy disk? Or have you struggled to open a document created in an old version of WORD?
  • Storage media of all types can be affected by “bit rot”. This takes different forms according to whether the storage media is optical, magnetic or solid state, but the end result is the same- the loss of your digital files

Now let’s look at the steps you can take to minimise and manage these risks:

  • Be organised:
    • Keep records in a sensible folder structure which keeps related items together and provides meaningful context
    • Name records clearly and consistently
    • Use version control and always distinguish clearly between draft/s and FINAL documents
  • Prefer live storage where possible:
    • static media, for example, CDs/DCD/s/pen-drives, can degrade
    • hardware quickly becomes outdated in the fast- moving world of IT
    • the hard drive of your PC is an example of live storage
  • Back up records, do it regularly and systematically and test it:
    • risks of hardware failure, file corruption, inappropriate access, theft and loss can all be managed by having a copy of your digital records in a separate location to spread the risk
    • you could use cloud storage, a portable hard drive or even portable media for your back up location/s
    • remember, even cloud storage is not 100% infallible – there have been instances of data being been lost through lighting strikes
  • Restrict access:
    • Don’t leave your laptop in the car-remember, it’s the equivalent of your whole filing system!
    • Password protect your computer- and if necessary, individual files

Gloucestershire Archives has proven systems in place to ensure that digital records in our care are preserved, findable, intelligible and trusted.  You can find out more about our approach here.  We can accept digital material in many formats for long term preservation providing it falls within our collecting policy.  Please contact us if you would like to discuss this further.

It’s easy to under-estimate just how much information your digital files represent.  You can visualise your database as though it was hard copy documents

Pixar Animation have produced this humorous but sobering account of how Toy Story 2 almost got deleted – a true story!

Based on Heritage Hub training developed by professional staff at Gloucestershire Archives.

At Gloucestershire Archives, through our National Lottery Heritage funded “For The Record” project, we will support people to: “document, care for, interpret and celebrate their personal and shared history”.

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