Family History Preservation: Preserving Electronic Information


For many of us, the biggest threat to the safety of our family history information may not be papers yellowing with age or photos fading in the sunlight but instead the possibility of our computer crashing or our phone dying a painful death in the washing machine. 

These days nearly everyone keeps important family information such as photos, scanned documents, GEDCOMs, and other files on their computers, digital cameras, cell phones, and tablets. While most people recognize that documents and photos are fragile, it’s easy to forget that electronic files are just as fragile, only in different ways. In fact, in some ways, electronic files are more at risk. While the old tactic of “store and ignore” might work for papers or photos, it doesn’t work for electronic files. With technology constantly changing, anything left alone for more than a handful of years is going to become difficult to access or read—something you’ve experienced if you’ve ever tried to access files on an old floppy disk.

Two main tasks can save the day for your electronic files: organizing and backing up your information.

Sifting and Sorting: Organizing Your Info

preserving data on your computer
Before you can back up your digital information, you have to figure out what information to back up. “Without organization, there is no preservation,” says Chris McAfee, head conservator of rare books and manuscripts at the BYU Library. Follow these simple steps to make this overwhelming project conquerable.

  1. Centralize your information. You might designate your computer’s hard drive as the place to gather all information. Then transfer photos from your camera or phone as well as email family letters or even important photos from Facebook to your computer.
  2. Decide what’s important, and get rid of what isn’t. While many genealogists face the problem of too little information about distant ancestors, today we often run into the opposite problem—too much information. If we don’t take steps to manage our thousands of photos and emails, they can become too cumbersome to be useful. That’s why a cleaning purge now and then is important. After all, posterity doesn’t need 20 photos of your kids on the beach in the sunset. One will probably be enough.   
  3. Label files. Use descriptive names so you don’t have to open files repeatedly to figure out what they are, slowing down your organization process.
  4. Group information in a way that makes sense to you. Just as with storing papers, there is no one magic right way to organize your files. The point is to somehow create order out of mayhem. You might place documents in folders by type or put photos in folders by year, for example.

Creating Copies: Backing Up Your Information

Backing up files is not a one-time event but instead an ongoing process. Develop a system that works for you—and then follow it consistently. Here are suggestions.

  1. digital preservation on backup CDs
    Follow the 3-2-1 rule.
    For every important electronic file, make sure that you have at least three copies of it on two types of media storage in at least one location other than your house. Storage possibilities include your computer’s hard drive, DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives, or internet storage. This way, if the internet storage company goes out of business and takes your photos with it or if your two-year-old knocks over her apple juice on your computer, you will have other copies.
  2. Let others know your plan. Documents and artifacts will eventually get noticed by surviving family members after a death for the simple reason that they take up space. The same isn’t true for internet storage files containing 10 years of family photos. Make sure your family is aware that these important electronic files exist and knows where to find them.
  3. Store your storage safely. Label CDs and DVDs so they aren’t accidentally thrown out, and keep all electronic files in places safe from dust where temperatures and humidity don’t get too high.
  4. Revisit your backups at least once a year. Make sure everything is still technologically current. Transfer files to something more recent if you need to.

Follow these steps, and you can breathe easy knowing that your electronic information is safe from whatever technology mishap might head your way.

For More Information

1. The Library of Congress, “Personal Digital Archiving,” and brochure, Preserving Your Digital Memories

2. FamilySearch, Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally (three-part series)

3. Cyndi Ingall, Legacy Family Tree Webinar, “Be Your Own Digital Archivist: Preserve Your Research” (sometimes a fee is charged to view)


Don't foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you're done!


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