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Library Guides

Managing your personal digital archive: Appraisal: Deciding what to keep

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.

Why do appraisal?

Once you have a good idea of what you have, and where it is, you need to start thinking about what to include in your personal digital archive. In archives we call the process of deciding what to keep appraisal. The first thing to realise is that you can't keep everything. This is true of all archives, for example the National Archives only retain around 5% of government records for permanent preservation. It might be tempting to think this doesn't apply to digital records but consider the following:

  • Knowing what you have: thinking about what you want to keep will help you to understand your collection and what you value about it.
  • Keeping organised: deciding what to keep early on makes it easier to organise and maintain your archive. The more you decide to keep, the more time and effort it will take to look after it properly.
  • Storage is finite and costs money: for your personal digital archive, we will be keeping multiple copies of your files (see the Storing and Maintaining section), this will soon add up if you decide to keep everything. There is also an environmental cost to digital storage.
  • Being aware of sensitive material: your archive might contain personal information about yourself and others, it's important to know what this is so you can look after it properly.


'To do' icon

Review the points below, then:

  • Go through the material you identified in the Finding your stuff section of the guide.
  • Decide whether you want to keep it and why. If you do want to keep it, note it down for transfer to your archive. 
  • If you get stuck, try to decide whether it has primary or secondary value, if not perhaps you don't need to keep it.
  • Try to weed out any unnecessary files like drafts and duplicates.

Deciding what to keep

So how do you decide what to keep? Ultimately this is a personal decision but there are a few things you can think about to help you. 

Archivists often talk about records having primary and secondary value. Primary value refers to a record's value to the organisation that created it, for example for administrative, legal or financial purposes. You could apply this idea to your own records, thinking about things you need to keep because they are important for your studies, job applications, or financial transactions such as a tenancy agreement. Secondary value refers to the wider historical value that records might have for researchers. You could use this idea to think about records that document important events in your life, or work that you think is of lasting value. Perhaps you have been involved in cultural or political movements that you think should be recorded. If something doesn't have primary or secondary value, it probably doesn't belong in your personal digital archive.

Getting rid of clutter

Once you've decided in principal that a set of files belong in your archive, you should still consider weeding out any that you don't need. For example, you might want to think about:

  • Getting rid of duplicate files, though this can be time consuming so just get rid of any obvious ones.
  • Think about getting rid of drafts, perhaps you only need to keep final versions. If you do want to save some drafts, perhaps to show how a piece of work has developed, just pick a few representative examples. 
  • If you work in audio or video, decide whether to keep project files or just final versions. This will depend on whether you want to work with them again or just keep them for reference.
  • Saving email or other messages along with the work they relate to can be useful, but you probably don't need every bit of correspondence.

Problems viewing your files?

To appraise your files, you will need to be able to open them. Most of the time this won't be a problem but you might come across some files you can't access. For example old word processing files may not open in modern versions of Word, while some video files may require particular codecs to play. Fortunately there are freely available tools you can use to open most files:

  • LibreOffice Write will open old documents, like those created by earlier version of Word or with older programs such as WordPerfect.
  • VLC media player will play a wide variety of audio and video files. 
  • If your built-in image viewing software won't open an image, try opening it in a browser such as Chrome or Firefox. Windows users can also try downloading an application like IrfanView.
  • If you can't tell what type of file you are looking at, try using MedaInfo or DROID to find out more about it. Once you know what file format it is (and if it's an audio or video file, what codec it uses), then you can try to find an appropriate app to open it with.