Preserving Your Digital Archives

Most of us have accumulated many gigabytes of digital files over the years. Whether they are decades-old word processor documents or the hundreds of photographs you took on your last vacation, you know they’re saved… somewhere. You expect them to be accessible anytime you need them in the future, just like a printed report or photo album. Unfortunately, accessing your older files might not be so easy. It takes a little work to be sure that your digital archives are available for long as you want to keep them–but a few simple steps can go a long way.

In honor of Preservation Week, keep reading to learn how you can get started preserving your digital archives!

Why do we need to preserve digital files?

You might be surprised to learn that digital files are extremely vulnerable, even more so than physical papers or photographs. There is an entire discipline devoted to maintaining our digital information for the future. Digital preservation “refers to the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary” (Digital Preservation Coalition).

While the dangers facing your physical files are less familiar than those facing your physical archives, they are no less real. Some of the risks include physical damage to the device storing the data; degradation of the data itself (also known as “bit rot”); and archaic digital or physical formatting (“digital obsolescence”). 

Format matters

Remember ClarisWorks? You might be familiar with this early word processor if you were a Mac user in the 1990s. Whether you’ve heard of it or not, if you found an old .cwk file, you would likely have a hard time opening it with modern software. In fact, since that file was probably saved on a floppy disk, you might have trouble accessing it at all. 

To avoid losing access to your data, make sure your technology keeps up with the times. Choose standard, widely adopted file formats when possible, such as PDFs for documents. Make sure you can still access your files even as you update your technology: for example, floppy disks won’t help you without a floppy drive to read them!

Backing up your files

Today is a great day to back up your digital files! For extra credit, remember the 3-2-1 rule: keep 3 copies of important files, 2 on different storage devices, and 1 of those in a different location.

3 copies of important files

Backing up your files, or keeping multiple copies, provides an extra layer of security against loss or damage. Because digital files are so easily damaged, but also so easily duplicated, making multiple copies is like an insurance policy for your information. 

2 of these copies on different storage devices

A storage device refers to the computer, server, hard drive, or other physical artifact that houses your digital files. A secure storage device is critically important for preserving your files. (Remember the last time your computer died in the middle of a project?)

Even storage devices that appear to be in perfectly good condition can accumulate invisible damage over time. This damage can result in minor failures or errors that gradually corrupt the files on the device. In some cases, the files may eventually become inaccessible. This damage can be random, or it can be due to an inherent fault in the device itself. 

The safest way to avoid device failure is to keep your data on more than one type of device. For example, if one of your copies is on your primary computer, keep another backup on an external hard drive.

1 of those copies is in a different location

Storage devices can be physically damaged or destroyed by unforeseen events: for example, if a pipe bursts in the ceiling over your computer. Spreading out your backups prevents them all from being destroyed in the same disaster. Do the best you can: even keeping your backup device in a different room is a good start. A different building, such as your office or your home, is even better. 

One approach for this type of backup is to use a cloud-based commercial storage solution, such as Dropbox. Depending on your needs, this type of service might also be a good option, but know that you are relinquishing some control over the way your data is stored. Read the terms of service carefully to understand what the company is promising and how your data will be handled. 

Preservation is a journey, not a destination

It would be great if you could back up your files and walk away, knowing they are safe forever. Unfortunately, if you did that, you’d soon be at square one. Preservation is a hands-on process. Check on your files occasionally to make sure you can still access them. Think about the technology you’re using and whether it is likely to become obsolete soon. A little attention on occasion can save you from future disaster!

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