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
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. 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:
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.
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).
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.