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Managing your personal digital archive: Different types of digital material

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.

Archiving different types of digital material

So far, the steps we have looked at can apply to any digital material. But particular types of digital work might present specific challenges and require some extra thinking. This page provides a quick overview of the issues you might need to consider for different formats, along with links to further reading.

File formats

You might see different file types described as 'file formats'. A file format is the standardised way that digital information is encoded in a computer file. For example, JPEGs are file formats that are used for images and DOCX are file formats for documents. Some formats include compression, which makes files smaller but - if they use 'lossy' compression -  can reduce quality. File formats can also be open source or proprietary (owned by a particular company). Generally you should try to work with lossless, open formats. You should also try to avoid new or unusual file formats, to reduce the risk that might become obsolete.

Audio and video

Looking after audio and video work can be complicated. Most audiovisual file formats are containers which hold streams of audio and video that have been encoded, and sometimes compressed, with a codec.

  • Older physical media such as tapes and CDs degrade quickly and may be reaching the end of their life. They are also vulnerable to obsolescence: it may be difficult to find devices that can access them. You should digitise any material held on these media.
  • If you are starting a new project think about what file formats are appropriate. Ideally choose an open, well-supported format.
  • However, for existing digital files, it is probably not worth migrating to a new file format, even if you would otherwise prefer to use it. Transcoding from one audiovisual format to another can sometimes lead to increased file size, lost metadata and potentially loss of quality.   
  • One exception to this is if you are about to lose access to proprietary software, for example you may lose access to Adobe Creative Cloud at the end of your course. If that's the case be sure to export files into a format that you can continue to work with.
  • Think about what you need to keep to carry on working with a set of files. For example, if you work with audio files in Audacity, you will need to keep the project data folder as well as the individual project file to be able to carry on working with it. You might also consider keeping any original recordings you made for a project. The same principal applies to work with video editing software such as Premiere. 

For more detailed information on this topic, Ashley Blewer has created an excellent guide for the Digital Preservation Coalition, available to download from their Technology Watch page

Images

This category includes digital photographs that you take with your phone or camera, which should be relatively straightforward to look after. But also consider images you create with programs like Illustrator.

  • For many of us, the biggest challenge to preserving our images is the sheer number of them we have, often spread across different devices. Follow the steps in the sections on finding your stuff, and appraisal to get all your images together and think about which ones you want to keep.
  • Don't leave images on a camera or memory card, make sure you add them to your archive so they can be securely stored.
  • Bear in mind that when uploading images to online platforms such as Google Photos, they may be reduced in quality. Social networks such as Facebook may also strip out useful metadata. Therefore always keep the original copy of any files you upload.
  • If you use a DSLR, it may use proprietary raw file formats. When adding these files to your archive, it's worth making a copy in an open format such as TIFF.

Documents

One of the biggest issues you might face with documents is keeping track of all the drafts and different versions you might have , so take a look at the section on arrangement for help with this.

  • Although Microsoft's DOCX format is proprietary, it is an open standard and very widespread so documents in this format are probably fairly safe from obsolescence. 
  • If you use a less common program such as Pages or Scrivener, consider exporting your documents into a more widespread format like ODF or DOCX.
  • If you have old word processing files that you have trouble opening, try opening them using LibreOffice.
  • If the layout of your files is important to you, consider exporting final files to PDF. These should look the same whatever software you use to open them, but bear in mind they will be difficult to edit so keep your original files too.
  • If you work with desktop publishing software such as InDesign, keep in mind that you will need to preserve associated image files along with the desktop publishing file. If you are going to lose access to a particular DTP package, make sure you export files into a format you can access.
  • Online services such as Google Docs can be very useful but make sure you also download your own copies for your archive. Don't rely on a single online service to hold all your documents.

Websites

Our websites and blogs can often feel like a personal 'archive', a place to keep things we have published online and refer back to them. But the web can be an unstable place. As we saw at the beginning of this guide, free web hosting platforms and social media services can shut down or change their terms of use, leaving you without access to your site. Changes to technology might also alter how your website looks or works. 

  • Remember that just because you've put something online it doesn't mean it's safe, you need your own copy. So keep copies of content you upload to your website in your personal digital archive. To download your content from social media, see the section on finding your stuff.
  • But saving content from your website may not be enough, you might want to preserve a copy of the site itself. Perhaps you've put a lot of work into how your website looks or functions. Or you want to preserve a snapshot of what you had on it at a particular time.
  • One way to preserve your site, is to submit it to a specialist institution that preserves websites. You can submit a page to the Internet Archive using their Save Page Now feature. If you are based in the UK you can also submit your site to the UK Web Archive. If you submit your site to the UK Web Archive, include the fact that you are the site owner and give permission for the archive to be viewable online. Otherwise it will only be accessible in the reading room of one of the UK Legal Deposit Libraries.
  • However, the automated techniques used by these institutions might not successfully capture all of your site. You might also decide that you want your own archival copy of your site, to preserve with the rest of your archive. In that case, consider using Conifer. Conifer is an online service that allows you to create your own web archive. When you have created an archive in Conifer you can download it as a .WARC file - the standard archival format for websites - and add it to your personal archive. 

Email

Like websites, we often use email as a kind of 'archive', for example by sending ourselves emails with important files attached. But our email is usually managed by an online service that we don't control. So sometimes it's best to get our own copies of our email to add to our personal archive.

  • First of all try to do some appraisal, you probably don't need to save everything. Try to delete unimportant things as you go.
  • Think about attachments. If the important thing about a message is the attachment, it might be better to just download the attachment.
  • Most mail clients and online services like Gmail let you select individual emails to download or save, and you can add these to relevant folders in your personal archive. 
  • Alternatively you can use features such as Google Takeout to bulk download your email from your provider. This will probably generate some very large files, so if you can, try to put all the things you want to keep in one folder within your mailbox and only select that when you're doing the export.
  • Be careful: remember your email might include personal information about you and others. Always follow the University's guidance on working safely online.

Software

Preserving software can be complicated. Depending on the project, as well as looking after your source code, you may also have to think about assets like video and 3D objects. Software can also have many dependencies such as hardware, operating system and any software libraries you have used in your project.

  • Make sure you have your own copies of your code and any associated material, don't just leave it in an online service like Collab or GitHub.
  • If you are happy for someone else to look after your code, you could submit it to a software archive such as Software Heritage. Though note that preserving the source code alone does not guarantee you will actually be able to run the code in future.
  • If your software depends on an operating system or platform that is no longer supported, you might be able to run it with an emulator such as DosBox for MS-DOS or Ruffle for Flash. You could also consider maintaining a version of the required operating system in a virtual machine, using a tool such as Virtualbox.

More resources

There are lots helpful resources on digital preservation available online, many of which we have referred to in putting together this guide. Here are some places to begin investigating the subject in more detail.

The Digital Preservation Coalition is an international organisation that advocates for digital preservation and provides support for its members and the wider community. A great place to start finding out more about digital preservation is their Digital Preservation Handbook. For more detailed information about particular topics take a look at their Technology Watch publications. The Topical Notes series in particular, provides accessible introductions to different digital preservation issues, including personal digital preservation. Gabriela Redwine's excellent report on Personal Digital Archiving will also be of particular interest to users of this guide.

The National Archives is the archive of the UK government and provides leadership and support for the UK archives sector. Their Digital Preservation Workflows are aimed at people working in archives but they provide lots of useful guidance and tools that could be adapted to your personal archive. Their tool DROID can also be very helpful if you need help identifying file formats in your collection.

For more information and guidance on different file formats, have a look at the work of the British Library and the US Library of Congress.

The University provides useful resources on organising research dataworking safely online and backing up your work. The Online Learning page contains details of the software that is provided to you by the University, you may want to review this towards the end of your course to see what you might be losing access to.

This guide also 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, for more information on the series and the resources we used, take a look at our blog.