Friday, August 28, 2015

Preservation at Home - Digital Materials

This week I’d like to go over the issue that has been going through your minds for the past few years—“How am I ever going to manage this increasing amount of digital material?”  Perhaps you are an avid photographer in your spare time, or have an extensive music collection, in both cases you are probably dealing with a level of complexity and density previously unheard of in the analog world for mere individuals.  Have you ever had a drive crash and you’ve lost old college papers, images of friends and family or an expensive number of iTunes movies and music?  It’s like there was a small, strictly contained fire—it didn’t take everything, but it took a lot.  AS easy as it is to make these objects, it is the same level of easy to watch them disintegrate into a million 1’s and 0’s if not properly managed, and that will be the key word for you today – “manage.”  Because that is what this stuff takes.

Preserving digital materials in the professional world requires checksums, migrations, media analysis and format analysis.  The systems and tools developed to assist with these processes are multitude and each covers only a small slice of the overall pie, leaving archivists scrambling to find services or programs to fill in the blanks.  Today I am going to discuss what you can do at home to help preserve this insane glut of data we are all producing.

Optical media - unstable format for digital materials
Back it up! 
In 2008 I lost roughly 2 years of photographs taken with what was then my new DSLR—images of learning to use the camera, photos of my wife, our walks, vacations, etc.—all gone with a failed hard drive.  Recovering the data was not possible due to a number of factors and thus I was left with a substantial hole in my photographed existence.  All because I had neglected my regular back up process.  This is one unavoidable cost of managing your electronic existence—a 1 TB drive can cost between 80-100 USD depending on the design.  You can get slower ones that use the USB cable to power the drive, or ones that have a cable for power and one for transfer.  Back up frequently.  Use the installed program, or one that is offered by a vendor, or go it alone and painstakingly only add files to your back up that are new (my method, but I manage in detail).  Once you’ve started down this path you’ll begin to see the intense complexity that comes from having electronic assets, sure these things are easy to use, send, etc. but they take up mental space and require searching tools to find if you are in any way disorganized.

Keep things organized!
Digital material has a way of becoming quickly disorganized.  If you are focused on your own materials, or working with a family, please take a few minutes to discuss how to organize what you’ve already got.  I start with big categories and create additional sub-categories if needed.  For instance, our home drive has several top-level folders like “MOVIES,” “MUSIC,” and “DOCUMENTS.”  We add to those folders whenever we finish a project (like taxes), upload a cache of images (photos from a trip) or when I get several albums that need redundancy.  At these points I create a folder (for example, “St. Helens 2015”) and copy that to all 3 of my back up drives.  Yes, you heard correctly; I have 3.  One back up is great as long as you test it regularly and know how long it’s been running, etc.  Having multiple drives means that once one drops off, then you won’t be scrambling for a new one and there won’t be a high risk of actual data loss.  Keep things organized and like in the paper world, frequently get rid of that which you do not require.

Wait, what?  Yes, if you want those images you take today to be around for your kids or the alien overlords that will rule earth in the future, then for all sakes, please print your photos, favorite documents, etc.  Sure, you are adding a little more paper to the world, but have you ever heard of bit rot?  Even digital materials may break down randomly.  All it takes is for a single bit to flip in the header of a file and an image of a smiling baby turns into a nightmarish, Cthulhu dream of distorted proportions and non-Euclidian geometry.  So, go through your stock pile of random images and select some that mean something to you and go to a store and get them printed.  Pay extra for good or large prints.  Then take care of them according to the guidelines we discussed in the last post on Photographs and you are in business.  This could lead to some serious storage issues, so you’ll want to engage a de-cluttering model as you do this to ensure that a once normal proves of digital storage management doesn’t turn into an excuse to create an analog problem as well!

Passport drives, external drives and a flash/jump drive
Since digital materials are not tethered in any real way to the medium they are found on (DVDs, CDrs, flash drives, diskettes, etc.) you want to transfer the files from their hideously unstable carriers onto a hard drive (either internal or external) for safe keeping, and then proceed to regularly check for drive failure.  To quote Jeff Rothenburg, digital media (like Cds, DVds, etc. ) have a lifespan of "5 years to infinity, whichever comes first."

That’s all I am going to flood you with this week.  And thus also ends this short series of articles on personal preservation.  I am always willing to revive this series if there are other areas of preservation you want me to tackle (aerials anyone!  Maps, maybe?) feel free to send me an email and I’ll create a post on that topic!



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