Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Electronic Records Care: Summary

Will your favorite pics of your kid’s birthday last as long as your grandparents’ wedding photographs?

How do you store your family’s important records? How about your favorite family photos? Though physical photo albums and file folders still probably exist for older materials, it’s increasingly likely that your recent documents and photographs are being created and stored electronically rather than in physical formats, and the shift to the convenience of electronic documents and digital photography brings up a number of new challenges when it comes to preserving your family’s history.

It may surprise you to know that long-term preservation of digital information requires more ongoing attention than paper documents or photographs. Removable media (such as floppy disks, USB drives, CDs, and DVDs) are all susceptible to the same environmental risks as physical records (heat/cold, water damage, mold, fire, etc.), but they are also subject to the additional risks due to the ephemeral nature of digital files.

Folder and File Organization

Consider this: where are your electronic documents and digital photos kept? Are they all saved in one place, or are they spread out over many devices and storage locations? Maybe some of them are on your phone, some on your laptop, some you remember burning to a CD a few years ago, and some more are saved on external hard drives or in the cloud. Are some of your favorite family photos only found on Facebook or other socialmedia? Does your family know where to find these important family documents and photos, or does only one person have access to them?

Much like good paper record-keeping, one of the most important components of good electronic records preservation is proper organization. The first step is to identify where your digital photos, videos and documents are saved. Then delete unwanted, irrelevant or redundant files, and consider organizing how the files are saved so you can see all of the materials together. Arrange those photos and documents into organized folders, and label them in a way that tells you what each folder contains before you open it. Good names for folders and files include descriptive information such as the type of document and what year it is from, or the events and names of people shown in photos and when they were taken. Don’t trust it to be obvious whether a document is important to keep or can be safely deleted. Not everyone will remember when or where a photograph was taken, or of whom. You might recognize your great-aunt from the old baby photos you scanned a few years ago, but another family member might not know their significance. And make sure to save copies of photos posted to social media – don’t rely on a social media site to preserve them!

Once your files are organized, the next step is to make sure they’re saved in a way that helps secure them against loss.

Digital Storage Considerations

When it comes to your important digital records, your storage needs can grow quickly.  You want digital storage that meets your capacity needs, will last, is easily accessible but secure from outside threats, and fits your budget.  The main solution options generally boil down to a) a local, external hard drive that connects to your computer by USB or other connection, or b) online-based cloud storage you access through the internet.  Both options have their pros and cons.

External hard drives are physical storage media that connect to your computer by USB port.  They offer quick access to your documents and photos from your computer, can be configured to automatically back up files saved on them, are safe from hackers, and can be purchased in ample storage unit sizes (500GB-2TB+).  They are, however, susceptible to local risks such as fire, water damage, and theft, are only accessible from a single location unless disconnected and moved, and moving them puts them at risk of physical damage. Even the best external hard drives have a shelf-life of approximately three to ten years before they are at risk of spontaneous failure.  They generally have a linear pricing structure, and could cost you approximately $0.10-$0.50 per GB, depending on the quality of the hard drive.

Cloud storage uploads your documents and photos to off-site storage through the internet rather than saving them on a physical drive connected to your computer.  Cloud storage is accessed online by logging into your account with the cloud storage site, accessible wherever you go so long as you have an internet connection.  With cloud storage, your records are kept safe from local threats of fire, water damage, and theft, and are easily shareable.  However, using cloud storage does come with risks.  You have less control over your materials with cloud storage as they are stored off-site, and you may not know exactly how secure the cloud’s servers really are.  Your records could be vulnerable to hackers, access can be slower than with external hard drives, and the access restrictions could leave your family records inaccessible if only one person has the username and password information for the account. Cloud-based storage also involves on-going costs that have to be paid periodically to continue having access to that storage; if prices rise past what you feel you can pay, you may be left with having to find an alternative storage solution in a hurry. Depending on the amount of storage you need and the features offered by the storage service – file encryption, multiple restore points, geographically-dispersed servers – costs could range anywhere from pennies to $5+ per GB of storage.  Some cloud storage options like Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive come with a limited amount of free storage, so if you do not have a need for a greater amount of storage, these free options might be a good choice. 

We generally advocate for a hybrid solution: a physical hard-drive for your main storage needs, with back-up copies saved to the cloud. If something happens to one, you will still have access to the other, and will not have lost anything. 

Backing Up Your Files

In the archives and library world, we have a saying: Lots of copies keep stuff safe.  Creating back-up copies of your important files can help protect them from loss in case something goes wrong.  And there is a lot that can go wrong.  Natural disasters like floods, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes aren’t the only threats to be aware of; system or hardware failure, file corruption, malware, viruses, theft, and human error are also great risks to the security and preservation of your family records and photos.  Backing up your files is a good way to make sure that even if something happens to your files in one location, you won’t lose the only copy of those precious family materials.  There are some key things to remember about backing up your files:

·         Back up your files regularly – either on a set schedule or whenever you’ve made a major   change or addition to them.
·         Burning your files to a CD or DVD isn’t ideal for keeping new files and photos backed   up. CDs get lost or damaged, and newer computers are less likely to have CD drives.
·         Some external hard drives and cloud storage options can be configured to automatically   back-up files. Consider setting a back-up to automatically run in the middle of the night.
·         There are three main categories of back-ups:  Full back-ups, which completely copy all   of  the data being backed up each time; Differential back-ups, which build on an initial   full back-up, and only copy data added since that original back-up; and Incremental   back-ups, which also build upon an initial full back-up, but only copy data added since   the last incremental back-up.
·         Don’t store original files and back-up copies together – if your back-up hard drive is kept   next to your laptop, a fire, tornado, or thief can easily get both.  Consider the hybrid USB   hard-drive/cloud storage solution we suggested yesterday. Geographically-separate back-   ups can be good insurance against most forms of data loss.
·         A widely-used data-loss prevention strategy is the 3-2-1 Plan, which involves having   three copies of your important files: two stored locally but on different media (perhaps   one on your computer and one on an external hard drive), and one stored off-site, in   cloud storage.

File Migration

One of the most overlooked aspects to digital archiving is ensuring continued access. Scanning a paper document or photograph isn’t a preservation solution, but trading the set of physical preservation concerns for a different – and arguably more difficult – set of preservation concerns.  Whereas well-stored photographs and paper documents created a hundred and fifty years ago might be easily readable today, digital records created today may be inaccessible in a decade or two if not cared for properly. 

You see, digital records require much more active preservation than paper records and photographs. Not only do storage media tend to fail (including CDs and DVDs labeled "archival quality"), in a few years, the hardware and even the software required to read the content may no longer be available. The file formats in which information is stored change over time, and quickly. New versions of software and file formats are released all the time, and there is a limit to their ability to open older files.  If all of your family tree information is stored in an older file type, soon you may still have the file but no software capable of opening it, or no computer capable of running the software that *could* open it. Digital obsolescence is the main enemy for archives seeking to preserve digital records and photographs, and can cause the loss of personal digital records if steps aren’t taken to keep your important family files up-to-date.

The answer is file migration. Essentially, opening your older digital files and saving them into a different, newer file type.  In a specific example, if you have an older document from Microsoft Word (a file ending in .doc) you would open it and save it as a new Word document (.docx) to prevent losing access to it as newer versions of Microsoft Word are released. So double-check your important digital records and photos to find what formats they are saved as, and migrate them into newer file types to prevent losing access to them through digital obsolescence.  Though remember, digital obsolescence is an ongoing preservation concern when it comes to digital files, and you will need to periodically check and migrate older file types forward every few years to keep up with technology as it changes.

We hope this electronic records care post have been interesting and helpful to you in taking care of your family's important electronic records and digital photographs. Remember that the Arkansas State Archives is YOUR state archives, and we are here to be a resource for you and answer questions you might have about preserving your records.