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Managing your personal digital archive: Home

This guide will provide an introduction to personal digital preservation: making sure the digital material that you care about is safe and accessible into the future.

Overview

This guide will help you to build a personal digital archive. The different sections will show you how to find the material you want to keep safe, organise it, and think about how to store it safely. At the end there are some tips for looking after different types of digital material such as email, documents, video, audio, images and websites, along with some further reading. Looking after your own digital material is called personal digital preservation.

Digital preservation is the ongoing work of making sure digital material is available for as long as we need it. This work is often carried out by institutions like the University Archive, where we look after the digital records of the University. But archives won't normally look after the personal records of individuals. So, as most of our important stuff only exists digitally, we all need to think about how to take care of it ourselves.

That’s scary but it can also be empowering. By doing our own digital preservation we can try to avoid the historical record being dominated by big institutions and companies. Personal digital preservation can be especially valuable to members of marginalised groups whose stories may otherwise be lost.        

Using this guide

'To do' icon

  • There's a lot of information in this guide, as it aims to give you everything you need to put together your own personal digital archive.
  • Ideally set aside some time to work through the guide in order. At the beginning of most of the sections, there is a box like this giving you an overview of the steps to follow.
  • But don't feel like you have to do absolutely everything, the important thing is to make a start! Try to adapt the recommendations in the guide to your own way of working and follow the steps that make sense to you.
  • If you're very short on time, the most important section is the one on Storing and Maintaining your archive, which will tell you about how to come up with a strategy to keep your stuff safe. 

Why do we need digital preservation?

We need to do digital preservation because digital material is surprisingly fragile. Paper records, providing nothing terrible happens to them, can often survive through 'benign neglect'. But digital records need to be actively selected and preserved.Tweet from tech site The Register, reading "Putting the d'oh! In Adobe: 'Years of photos' permanently wiped form iPhones, iPads by bad update'. The tweet is illustrated by a stylised image of a mushroom cloud. The way our digital files are connected with online services can also make them particularly vulnerable. For example, in August 2020 a flawed update to Adobe Lightroom resulted in digital photographs being deleted from users' devices. For users who hadn't separately backed up their photographs, this loss was permanent.

In fact there are many factors that can lead to us losing our digital files:

  • Technological change means that the hardware or software we use can quickly become obsolete. For example it's now rare for new computers to come with a drive for reading CDs and DVDs. Similarly, once common software formats, like Flash, are now no longer supported.
  • The files that contain our digital information can become corrupt, especially when being moved or copied. 
  • Storage media such as hard disk drives, flash drives and DVDs degrade over time, losing the data that is held on them.
  • Hardware may also fail suddenly, our phone or computer could stop working or get lost or stolen.
  • Viruses or other malware could compromise our files.
  • It might be unclear whose job it is to look after digital material we care about. For example, we might have a shared drive for a group project but not have decided who will look after it when the project is over. 
  • We might depend on a social media or cloud storage provider to look after our things. But companies can make mistakes, change their terms of service or even go out of business.
  • Cloud services like OneDrive or Dropbox sync with your local machine so if you accidentally delete a file or it is compromised by ransomware, those issues can be replicated on the cloud.
  • Even if something is 'backed-up' on the cloud, this doesn't help us deal with other problems such as obsolescence or even just being able to easily find what you want.

Case studies

Here are a few more examples of some of the issues discussed above. Usually digital preservation makes the news when a big organisation like NASA or the BBC experiences data loss, but remember the same factors can easily affect individuals. 

  • Hardware and software obsolescence: The BBC Domesday Project, launched in 1986 to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book, created a new survey of the country with over 1 million participants. However, the material was stored on specially adapted LaserDiscs which required specialist hardware and software to play. This meant that by 2002 the material was effectively inaccessible, and much work has had to be done since to try to access it through emulation. See also: born-digital Andy Warhol artworks and NASA lunar images.  
  • Unclear responsibilities: It's easy to assume that our work or university is keeping everything safe for us. But unless digital files are actively selected for preservation, they are likely to be lost when we change jobs or finish a course. A particularly worrying example of this came to light through the Grenfell Tower enquiry.
  • Problems with cloud services and social networks: It's important to remember that things that are stored on the cloud still rely on physical infrastructure, which is vulnerable to disasters such as fires. Online services can also make mistakes: in 2019 the social network Myspace announced the accidental deletion of all content uploaded before 2016. But besides the risk of accidental deletion, online services may simply change their business model in ways that affect your content, or even close down entirely.

Archive and Records Officer

Jacob Bickford's picture
Jacob Bickford
Contact:
Archive office,
Level B3
4-12 Little Titchfield Street,
London
W1W 7BY
0207 911 5167
Website

Acknowledgement

This guide draws on material created for a collaborative workshop series delivered by the London consortium trainees of the National Archives' Bridging the Digital Gap trainee program. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of my fellow trainees: Ash Ullah (London Metropolitan Archives), Erin Liu (University of the Arts London), and Ellie Peng (Transport for London Corporate Archives).

Further reading

The digital preservation community provides lots of great online resources, many of which we have referred to in putting together this guide. For more information take a look at the More Resources section.