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Digital Archiving

Provides guidance on organizing, archiving, backing up, and preserving your personal digital files in a variety of media formats, including text, photos, audio and video.

What Is Digital Archiving?

We record our personal experiences and life events digitally on computers, phones, and other electronic devices in the form of documents, email, photos, social media, and audio/video files. But unlike physical records, which can be stored and preserved over time with fairly little effort, digital materials require ongoing active intervention to remain accessible. Computer crashes, changes in software and hardware, and the overwhelming volume of digital content we generate on a daily basis can contribute to the loss of important memories if we don't take action to keep digital records accessible over time.

Methods developed by professional archivists and digital preservation experts can help you manage your digital materials and minimize the risks of data loss. This guide is intended to aid you in creating a plan to preserve your personal digital archive, including recommendations for organizing your digital content, selecting sustainable file formats, and choosing stable storage media.

Keep in mind that each person uses their digital stuff in different ways. Some of this guide may not seem practical for you. But making a small effort to preserve your digital materials is better than doing nothing. It's also a good idea to keep digital preservation in mind as you create new digital files.

Archiving Your Digital Materials

1. Select

Identify the digital materials you want to keep over the long term. Make a list of the types of digital files you want to keep. At first, focus your preservation efforts on small collections of the most important files in specific areas, such as travel photos or research papers. Don't get burned out by trying to save everything and spending time on things you don't actually need.

When deciding what to save, consider the following questions:

  • If all of your electronic devices crashed tomorrow, what would you most regret losing?
  • Which digital files represent irreplaceable memories, important life events, or valuable creative work?
  • Which digital files tell meaningful stories about your life?

2. Gather

Figure out where the files you want to keep are located and copy them to one central computer so they can be backed up. Think about all the computers, devices, and online spaces that may contain your digital content:

  • Computers (personal or work)
  • Phones and tablets
  • Other electronic devices
    • music players
    • digital cameras
    • digital audio/video recorders
  • External hard drives and disks
  • Email (personal or work)
  • Cloud services and storage (Google, Box, etc)
  • Personal websites/blogs
  • Social media and file hosting services (Facebook, Twitter, etc)

3. Organize

Organize your files so they'll be easy to browse or search. Your files aren't accessible unless you can find them and know what they are. Adding descriptive information (metadata) to the file will make your digital collection easier to navigate. Grouping your files in folders by subject will also make them easier to access and preserve. See the Metadata section for more.

4. Backup

With all of your important digital files on one computer, back it all up by copying the entire collection to other storage media, such as external hard drives.

Follow the 3-2-1 Rule:

3 – Make 3 copies

2 – Use 2 different types of storage media

1 – Store 1 backup in a different location

See the Storage section for more.

5. Maintain

Digital preservation requires active maintenance over time to ensure that your materials remain accessible. Whatever type of storage media you use, monitor it by periodically checking up on your digital archive.

  • Check your storage annually. Don't wait until your computer finally crashes to discover that your storage has failed as well. Every year, connect to your storage media and open up a few random files to test that they're still accessible.
  • Refresh your storage every 5–7 years. Copy your digital storage to new media to mitigate the risks of aging technology. Also, you may want to take advantage of the increased storage capacity of newer drives as hardware evolves.

Important Digital Archiving Concepts

Born Digital vs. Digitization: Files created on your computer or other digital devices are considered "born digital," because they originate as digital content rather than as digital surrogates of physical materials. Digitization is the process of creating digital versions of physical materials through scanning, recording, or other digital capture techniques. This guide is focused on born digital materials, although many of the following concepts also apply to creating digital versions of physical materials.

File Formats: Encoding standards that allow computers to store and access information as different types of media so it can be rendered by software. File formats are commonly referred to by the extension that appears at the end of a file name, such as .doc, .mp3, etc. File formats that are widely adopted by large populations of users are likely to continue to be supported by software, browsers, and other rendering platforms.

Compression: Some file formats use compression algorithms to make file sizes more efficient by eliminating data that the algorithm considers redundant. Depending on the type of compression, this may result in a permanent reduction in quality for the content of the file. This may be fine for everyday uses of your files, but you may want to be aware of the type of compression used by your file formats when saving important files over the long-term.

Open Source vs. Proprietary: If a file format's specifications (the documentation that describes how the format works) are open to public view (aka open source), the format is likely to remain accessible across different platforms. If a format is proprietary, its specifications are maintained by an organization that may want to keep the format locked in a specific commercial software, which can make it more difficult to preserve. In general, open formats have fewer software dependencies and are therefore better for preservation.

Obsolescence: When a file format, disk media, or computer system is no longer widely used or supported, there's a growing risk that the digital content it contains may one day become completely inaccessible. Digital preservation experts are concerned with migrating content from at-risk formats and storage media to more stable standards that are likely to remain accessible over time.