Digital preservation for the home user
Much of the digital preservation world is aimed at large organisations or government agencies. But what about digital preservation for you? – the person at home? Do you have some precious family photos which you need to keep for the rest of your life? Or a draft of your first novel, which you know you will get around to completing in 30 years time? Or anything at all which you would be devastated to lose?
You might think that burning your memories onto CD would be enough, or placing everything into some form of online storage. But no one knows if the PC you will be using in 30 years time will even have an optical drive able to read CDs. Or you might find that your online storage company went bust in 2024. And even if you did have the files, will you still have any applications able to read them? What happens to your family photos then?
Here is Alan’s guide to digital preservation for the home user.
What you have to do
First things first. Create a folder on your PC’s main drive called Keep forever.
You must promise to keep this folder, and everything in it, for ever. When you buy a new PC, the first thing you will copy across will be the Keep forever folder. And you will back up this folder, in multiple places, even online if you like. And you will create new backups every year. In this folder you will store the stuff you want to preserve: the stuff which, if you lost it all, you would be gutted.
Inside this folder create two sub-folders.
Original bitstreams will contain a master set of the files you have chosen to preserve. You must never migrate or alter the stuff in this sub-folder, not until your dying day. Copies will contain copies of the stuff in Original bitstreams. These copies you can alter, work on, and migrate.
Now you need to create a simple spreadsheet. The spreadsheet will record the filenames of the files you are keeping forever, their file formats, the application used to create them or view them, a title or a brief description, and a column to record any migration or editing you carry out subsequently. Keep this spreadsheet simple. Don’t even use any coloured fonts or pretty backgrounds. It has to be simple, because as the decades go by you will be transfering it from one file format to another, as spreadsheet programs come and go.
Save the spreadsheet in Keep forever. And back it up.
Selecting your stuff
Now you can start putting your stuff into these folders. Be very, very selective indeed. Say only a few photos from each holiday. (I only have about 100 files in my own folder.)
Check these files have gone in ok, by manually opening them up, one by one, and looking at them. That’s the main reason why you don’t want too many things in there.
The digital preservation pledge
Now for the difficult bit. You must promise yourself to open this folder every year (say on your birthday, or around Christmas) to check whether the files contained in them are still in popular formats for the home PC market, or whether there is some danger of the file formats becoming obsolete. If a particular file format is no longer supported, or in danger of becoming unreadable, then now is the time to migrate the data to a different format. That is because millions of other people will be in the same boat as you, so there will be many software applications available to port the data.
If you fail to look at Keep forever for a few years, then the files in them will gradually become more and more out-of-date, and migration will then be much harder. Make sure you migrate the version in Copies – leave the ones in Original bitstreams as they are.
Make a note of what you have done to each file on your spreadsheet. And refresh your backups.
Over the course of decades, the copies in Copies may undergo numerous transformations, and become further and further distanced from the original files. But the files in Original bitstreams will never change. So, in the space year 2065 when someone emulates (say) an ancient JPEG image viewer for fun, your original files will still exist! – and the files will open in their full, pristine glory.
Why two separate sub-folders?
By having two sub-folders you are insuring yourself against data loss in two separate ways, migration and emulation. The files in Copies are being preserved through migration. The files in Original bitstreams are preserved for the time when some techies with a lot of time on their hands write a relevant emulator.
Let’s summarise all this:
- Create a folder called Keep forever, and actually keep it forever.
- Create a sub-folder called Original bitstreams, and keep the masters in here. Never, ever, edit or alter these.
- Create a sub-folder called Copies in which you will keep the copies. You can migrate these versions to new file formats as time goes by.
- Set up a simple spreadsheet or list to record information about everything in these folders.
- Put your stuff into these folders.
- Back everything up.
- Back everything up again somewhere else.
- Every year, whether you have added new stuff or not, you will examine the contents of the folder to see whether the file formats are still readable. If they are not, transfer them to new file formats while you still have the chance.
- Back everything up yet again.
- When you buy a new home PC, make sure that the first thing you copy across is the Keep forever folder with all its contents.
- Carry on doing this until Western society replaces digital computing with something else.