By Jeremy Heil
In my last post, I illustrated just a few of the problems we face when trying to preserve digital records over time. As promised, I’m back to provide a few pointers on what you, as a records creator, can do to preserve your files for yourself, your children, your grandchildren and beyond.
Choose the right equipment
Keeping accessible records starts from the first day you turn on your new computer. The operating system and software you choose for creating documents will have an impact on how easy it will be to view those files five years later. You are certainly familiar with the .doc (Word) and .wpd (WordPerfect) file types as perhaps the most common word processing formats. Because of their popularity, your chances are good that Microsoft and Corel will try to find ways to allow you to read these files in the future – but your fate rests in their hands. Saving your files as OpenDocument text (.odf) can create an extra level of certainty, as this is a word processing format developed and supported as a world standard. Standard formats for other types of files include .tif (digital images – scans or other post-photographic images), .dng (photographs), .wav (sound files) and .m2v (video). If your video camera or recorder allows you to save in these formats, you will have fewer worries in the long run.
Keep control of your files
You can save yourself a lot of headaches down the road by naming your files in a reliable and descriptive manner, and sorting them into appropriate folders. Did you take 100 photos of family at your niece’s birthday party? Name them “Nieces_Birthday-2012” (the computer will number them individually) and place them all in a similarly named folder. Better still (and if you have the time), name the people in the photos in the file name, e.g. “Aunt_Joan_and_Uncle_Dan.jpg,” stored in the “Nieces_Birthday” folder. Organizing your Word documents and e-mail in a similar way (by project, correspondent, or however else) will also help you keep track of everything you create or receive. And don’t forget to empty your trash – this will keep your computer clutter free for only your important documents!
Make copies and store them separately
Keeping two or three copies on separate media helps hedge your bets against one CD deteriorating, or a USB key getting accidentally erased. Most modern computers make it easy to produce backups just by plugging in an external hard drive. Take advantage of this feature, but feel free to burn important photos and documents to CDs as well. To ensure more complete security, store your backup drive at work or another family members’ house (maybe you can do a backup swap) – this will ensure that should anything happen (fire, flood, etc.), your computer will have a clone safely stored elsewhere. You can even take advantage of online network storage, like the iCloud, to back up important files.
Revisit your old files
This is your chance to reminisce! As you take a walk down memory lane, you’re not only remembering past events, you’re also taking note of whether the path is in need of repair. Does your CD give you an error message when you try to click on a jpeg? You can resort to finding a copy of the image from one of your other backups. If this is one time you did not get the chance to make a backup, find an expert in data recovery. Corrupted files may not always be salvageable, but if it’s important, it may be worth a try. As file formats age, some software may even have difficulty finding a way to open the files. It’s at this point you can also take stock of any other obsolete file formats in your personal archives. These files can be migrated (opened and resaved) into a modern file format for easier access, but this process does require some additional level of skill and care to ensure you are not losing vital information from the original document (nonetheless, always hold on to the original format as well – just in case).
What I’ve given you here are just a few tips to think about – this is by no means an exhaustive list of what you can do. Creating records in a digital world takes no effort at all, but keeping them requires a little work from time to time. You can read further details on what you can do in the InterPARES document Making and Maintaining Digital Materials: Guidelines for Individuals. I am happy to answer your questions, too – just add it to the comments below!