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Forestalling Personal Digital Doom

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The following is a guest post by Tess Webre, an intern with NDIIPP at the Library of Congress

Even though I’m relatively new to the professional library world, I’ve long known that digital preservation on a personal level is a daunting task laced with threats of doom. It requires great amounts of time, energy and consideration with very few visible benefits from day to day.

Blue screen of death, by wlef70 on Flickr

Like organizing a closet, or rearranging a kitchen cabinet, personal digital archiving is easy to put off, easy to forget and easy to make excuses for avoiding. It is tempting to look at disorganized files and pantries and shrug them off by saying “I’ll work on this tomorrow.”  How quickly we realize the error of our ways.

As soon as a disaster occurs and we find ourselves surrounded in disarray and must pick up the pieces. Just as kitchen cabinets need to be organized after a bag of rice spills on the floor, we start thinking about digital archiving after we can’t find a file, or access a piece of software.

Who among us has not lost a piece of valuable digital information? Our data can go out with a bang of a laptop being dropped or the whimper of scratch on a CD. We can lose our data with the excitement of graduation or the mourning of a funeral. Personal files can be lost with the closing of a company or the changing of a leader.

For reasons as diverse as natural disasters to software obsolescence, accessing our data can be impossible. We can discover the inaccessibility of the data immediately, months or even years after it occurs and feel the same paralyzing inability to do anything about it. Is there anything more frustrating than this?

It seems to me that there are two paths following the loss of data. Option one: consider this to be a fluke, and continue on with day to day life without making any of the necessary changes to preserve data. By ignoring the greater implications, the data loss will be repeated. It is just a matter of time before more and more data becomes lost.  It will start as a trickle, and become a flood. Until responsibility is taken, this will become a cycle.

Option two: learn the implications of this data loss: if one piece of digital data can easily become inaccessible then any piece of data can become inaccessible. This puts every photograph, every email, every home video, every e-filing and every other bit of memory in your digital history on the proverbial chopping block. That is a terrifying possibility, but not an inevitability as long as steps are taken to actively preserve digital data.

However, taking the next step can be difficult. With the relative newness of digital preservation and the plethora of different storage facilities and types, one can easy get lost in a technical jargon, and ambiguity. It can lead to more questions than answers.

What exactly is metadata and how do I make sure I have enough? Is it better to preserve material in the cloud or a physical storage media? As the questions mount, so does the frustration. It becomes easy to just give up on trying to preserve personal data for the future, to continue to put off the necessary steps until the next disaster occurs, thus starting the whole process over again.

One of the things I’ve learned during my internship is just how useful the NDIIPP personal digital archiving information is for helping people do the right thing with personal files. Written in a clear and relaxed tone (and, really, I’m not trying to curry favor!) I’ve found the website, as well as blog posts by Mike Ashenfelder and others to answer all kinds of questions.

I wish I could testify that the NDIIPP information has totally dispelled my fear of impending digital doom. It hasn’t. But it has inspired me with ideas and insights I can apply to push my personal digital threat level back to a safer place.

In the  meantime, I wish you all safe data.


Comments (3)

  1. Great post, especially after today’s Archives Forum discussion on the same topic.

  2. Hello,

    Having worked in Digital Media since the 1980s I have tried to protect my work at the office and at home by making at least two copies and keep them in separate areas.

    One company I worked for, a major telecommunication company, my manager suggested we make copies of our software too and install it on our own personal machines to encourage not only to better our skills but to have an “off-site recovery copy”. I believe for some programs you could install it up to three separate times.

    Currently I store my work on 2 CDs or DVDs and shelve them at room temperature in plastic cases or jewel cases in different areas of my home and office. The disc surface is not touching anything as the cases are suspending the disc by the center hole and not sleeved like in a cd wallet. Where constant removal might cause hard damage. I cringe every time I see someone driving around with commercial audio discs in the visor CD wallet of their car on a hot day.
    Delkin is offering to sell discs for storage that will last 100 years. I also have friends who are buying large capacity flash drives for long term storage.

    One problem is all the old storage devices of the past and archiving them to current storage devices because you need to keep the old hardware to read/play from. Imagine now we have in the old video analog world 1″, 2″, 3/4″ Umatic, VHS, VHS-C, SVHS, Betamax, HIi-8 tape and more that will need to keep the players for playback.

    I find this fascinating as we convert these medias to modern conversions and we are only scratching the surface.

    If there is anyone out there looking for film-video preservation personnel in the Chicago area please let me know.

    Keith Folk
    Digital Media Artist
    & Joliet Junior College Library Student, Joliet Illinois

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