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Collecting and Managing Your Personal and Family Records: Digital Files

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B

Image credit: Box of disks from the Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi collection, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries' Archives

Close-up photograph of colorful floppy disks

Since the 1980s, our personal and family heritage is increasingly created and stored digitally. It is easy to believe that the documents, photographs, and home movies created on your phone or computer will last forever. However, digital materials are often more fragile than physical ones. Machines and software capable of reading old digital formats - like floppy disks, Zip drives, or early word processor program files - are increasingly hard to find. Additionally, digital information stored on hard drives and thumb drives can be subject to 'bit rot,' where data can be lost to wear, dust and contaminants, or poor storage conditions. 

Preserving digital information for the long term requires regular maintenance and attention, to assure that data and files will remain accessible via future computer systems. See the resources below for more information on storing and maintaining your personal digital history. 

Five steps for digital preservation

The Digital Preservation Program at the LIbrary of Congress suggests five steps to making your digital files last: 

  1. Identify what you want to save - Where are the files you create located? On your computer? Camera? Online? Are they scattered around on unmarked disks or CDs? Gather everything you want to collect into one place.
  2. Decide what is most important to you - Select the images, emails, and documents that have the most long-term value to you and your family. If there are mutliple versions of the same file, choose the highest quality version. 
  3. Organize the content - Create a consistent organizational structure. Create a main archive folder. If you want to organize your files further, create other folders inside the master folder with simple tiltes like "video," "photos," or "documents."
  4. Make copies and store them in different places - Make at least two copies of your archive folder - more copies are better. One copy can stay on our computer or laptop; put other copies on separate media such as DVDs, portable hard drives, or cloud storage. Store the extra copies in different geographic locations. 
  5. Manage your archive over time - Be sure to check your saved files at least once a year to make sure you can open and use them. Because your hard drive or other storage systems will loose integrity over time, plan to move and save your archive folders every few years to a new computer or storage system. 
This content adapted from "Preserving Digital Memories," National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, Library of Congress

As always, one of the most important steps to insuring your personal and family history lasts through the ages is to identify, date, and clearly label material as you create and use it. 

Digital privacy

When capturing digital files from the internet - or when posting your own digital content online - it's important to consider the rights and privacy of yourself and others. The guides below were developed by activists, journalists, and human rights archivists, but many of their suggestions are broadly applicable. Always be aware of how you may be using or releasing sensitive or private information, or what future consequences may be. 

Suggested resources

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