Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part VII: Backing Up and Archiving Digital Files

By Rachel Smith

You have spent weeks or months digitizing your family’s photograph or document collections. You have meticulously labeled each file and placed them in a perfect organization system on your computer — only for disaster to strike. Your computer crashes and erases all of your files. You have a leak in the ceiling, which drips onto your laptop and fries it. Or in a less chaotic scenario, you replace your old computer for a new model, only to find that you forgot to transfer your old files. Now all of the time you spent digitizing and organizing your family archive has become a sunk loss.

How can you avoid such terrible scenarios?

Using computers as your only place to store your files is not a good option for the longevity of your digitized family archive. This is why backing up and, if possible, archiving your digitized family photographs and documents are paramount, so that when an emergency happens, you know that you have your files secured in another location.

Today’s blog will be covering steps 3-6 in the Digitizing Your Family Archive workflow. We will discuss how you can back up your files and create an archival copy of your digitized collection.* There is also a bonus section at the end with ideas of fun projects to do with your digitized family photographs.

  1. Capture
  2. Import
  3. Rename
  4. Backup
  5. Archive
  6. Edit, Export, Share (Optional)

* You can also use the advice in this blog to back up and archive your digital photographs that you have taken with a smartphone or digital camera!

Backing up Your Archive

There are several physical and digital options which you can use to back up your photographs. Among your physical hardware, you can use an external hard drive, USB flash drives, or rewritable DVDs and CDs. All of these devices will either plug into your computer or laptop via a USB cable or can be inserted into its CD drive. Most modern computers have programs on them which can back up your files to an external device and you may already be familiar with yours. The program on Microsoft computers is called File History and the equivalent on Apple computers is Time Machine. However, if you do not like using the backup software present on your computer, you can always download or purchase different software.

External hard drives are among the best options for external hardware. It will be a one-time purchase and easier to keep track of rather than multiple CDs or flash drives. I recommend 1 TB (terabyte) size external hard drives, which usually cost between $50 – $100 and can be purchased at most office supply and electronics stores. Even if you don’t think that you need 1 TBs worth of storage space, keep in mind that digital image files take up a lot of space, especially if you are saving your files as TIFFs. It is also better to have too much storage space rather than too little!

Whichever external device you decide to use, make sure that you store it in a safe, dry location like a small vault or water and fireproof cabinet. External storage media is as vulnerable to the elements as laptops or computers.

If you don’t want to bother with physical storage devices or worry about losing an external hard drive in a fire or flood, you can always store your digitized family archive on a cloud or online storage service. Even though these services store your files on servers at an external site, you can always access them on any device, including tablets or smartphones, as long as you have an internet connection. However, most of these cloud or internet storage services are subscription based (annual or monthly) and you may have to pay more money if you need more storage space. If you decide to use a digital storage service, it’s best to do your research on the different options so you can compare prices and storage space.

No matter which option you use to back up your digitized family archive, make sure that you perform backups on a scheduled basis, such as once or twice a month.

Archiving Your Digital Archive

After backing up your digitized family archive, it is also a smart idea to make an archival copy of your files. If you have a computer or laptop with a CD drive that can burn discs, you can burn your files onto a special kind of archival disc called an M-Disc. M-Discs, which stand for “Millennium Discs”, are a type of disc that were designed to last 1,000 or more years. The quality of the images and data burned to them are higher than those than DVDs or CDs, so they are a better option for your archive. M-Discs typically retail for $3-5 per disc and you will need to download a special software in order to burn files to them.

If you decide to make an archival copy of your digital files, you can store the discs at a secure location off site, such as a trusted relative’s house or a safety deposit box.

Just for Fun: Edit, Share, Craft!

You have digitized your photographs and documents, created a backup of the image files, and have possibly archived them. You don’t have to let your digitized items sit on your computer, unlooked at and unused – you can always do fun things with your photographs and documents!

Just remember, if you are making any alterations to your digital files, whether editing in photo software or saving an image in a different file format or size, never make permanent alterations to the original file. These changes are often irreversible, so you should save duplicate copies of the images you want to alter.

If you like using photo editing software like Photoshop, you can use it to touch up photographs that are faded or have other signs of damage.

If you are interested in genealogy, you can send image files to family and genealogy researchers by email or share them on genealogy websites and forums. Since most websites and email services have small file size limits for media uploads, scanned TIFF file photographs can be copied and saved as sharable JPEG copies.

If you enjoy scrapbooking, you can print out copies of your scanned photographs and documents without worrying about the originals. If you want to show off some of your treasured family photographs in your home but don’t want them to be exposed to light, you can print out your digitized images and place them in frames. If you enjoy quilting, sewing, or other fabric arts, there are websites which will print out cloth with your digitized images on them. You can create quilts, pillows, T-shirts, or almost anything you want with them!

Family Archivist Series

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