Personal Digital Archiving

Gina Strack Research

Photo by Open Minder / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /

As part of Preservation Week, we wanted to share information on how you can preserve one of the more difficult forms of records both for institutions like the Utah State Archives and in our personal lives: digital and electronic.

Why Digital is Special

Paper is one of the more stable forms on which people have recorded information throughout history, using it to “…make our laws, conduct our business, correspond with our loved ones, decorate our walls, and establish our identities.” 1 And then came the Digital Revolution. Advances in electronics, devices, and communication have radically changed how we save and record information. While the new abilities are amazing and useful, they also introduce new problems for the long-term.

Digital formats (word processing documents, spreadsheets, web pages, texts) and media (hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, the “cloud”) are surprisingly fragile in their own ways. Documents become corrupt or get left behind in software upgrades, hard drives have a terrible habit of failing without warning, and anything portable can be easily lost. Also, with the extension in capacity comes that many more items to manage and preserve.

Selection and Organization

Do we just save everything just in case? Unfortunately this is a poor method of having anything valuable survive into the future. There are costs associated with storing more than you need, from the payment to a cloud service based on size to the increased failure of some of the largest hard drives. 2 These costs may drive short-term decisions in the wrong direction with terrible results. It will take time, but out of the many files created in a digital life, only some should be selected for caretaking. These might include:

  • family photographs
  • email
  • important documents and vital records
  • financial information
  • genealogy
  • audio and video recordings

Any organization system will work as long as you use it. Key points include using enough details for someone else to understand (who is “Aunt May”?) and using filenames to sort for you. For example, use the most important detail at the beginning, if it’s the date lead a filename with YYYYMMDD to stay in chronological order.

Clutter can thrive just as well on your computer as in the hall closet. Schedule a regular time to go through files, whether when you add them–as in downloading photographs from your phone, or a time of year like tax season. 3 Even if your “backlog” is large, you can start good habits now to keep it from growing in the meantime. Unlike that back of the closet, forgetting about digital files means they may disappear long before you get around to it again, so aim for yearly check-ups at the very least.


Learn more about Preservation Week April 23-29, 2017

There is no single method for digital preservation, it’s a complex issue that is being tackled by archives and library professionals around the world. A few things to get you started:

  1. Diversity your storage – much like your investment portfolio it’s a good idea to use different media and locations for storage. Spread your files around by function, form, or what works best for you. 4
  2. Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe (LOCKSS) – used by libraries to plan multiple copies in multiple locations to guard against media failure and even natural disasters. 5 Depending on how you set it up, a computer backup may be a good duplicate copy, but don’t rely on automation you don’t fully understand.
  3. The “3-2-1” rule – an easy to remember way to figure out your copies and storage solutions. 6
    • Make 3 copies
    • Save at least 2 copies on different types of media
    • Save 1 in a location different from where you live or work

Preserving your digital life may be hard, but it’s not impossible. Understanding the risks and taking a few starting steps will go a long way toward being able to have photographs, letters (email), video, and more for the next generation.

Additional Resources

[1] Nicholas Basbanes, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), xii.
[2] Backblaze, “Annualized Hard Drive Failure Rates,” (accessed April 27, 2017).
[3] Smithsonian Institute Archives, “Clean Sweep in the New Year: Organizing Digital Photos,” (accessed April 27, 2017).
[4] Library of Congress, “Why Digital Preservation is Important for You,” (accessed April 27, 2017).
[5] LOCKSS, “Preservation Principles,” (accessed April 27, 2017).
[6] Digital Photography Best Practices and Workflows, “Backup Overview,” American Society of Media Photographers, (accessed April 27, 2017).