Why start a digital archive?
Physical things can survive for millennia. The earliest humans painted on the walls of caves. Ancient Egyptians wrote on scrolls of papyrus. Your grandmother's favourite photographs sit on top of a wardrobe in an old shoebox. The fact that any of these still exists is just incredible!
Physical objects stored in perfect conditions, and in a safe place, can last for a very long time. If no one ever holds, touches or uses something, then the thing is less likely to get damaged over time. People sometimes call this "benign neglect".
This is not the case for digital things. At all.
Digital files become corrupted over time. Hardware and software become obsolete, meaning you lose access to your files. And how likely are you - actually - to go through a loved one's Dropbox after they die?
There is no such thing as "benign neglect" in the digital world.
If you want something to last forever, then that is going to need effort. Not a lot of effort. But a little effort, and often.
Here are my 8 steps to starting your digital archive to make sure your digital stuff lasts forever.
Don't worry if it seems a little daunting. Just treat it as a project and take it one step at a time. You might find it helpful to download my FREE How to Start Your Digital Archive workbook. This will give you a series of manageable activities to help you break it down.
Step 1: Take stock of what you have
Go around your space and collect all the physical things that store your digital stuff. For me this is my laptop, my phone, my tablet, my hard-drive, a couple of USB sticks and an old camera I don't use any more.
Next, think about where else you have stored data in the past? Think about any cloud storage you have been using, like One Drive, Google Docs, or Dropbox. What apps do you use? Do you use Evernote? Are all your photos on Instagram or other social media?
Unless your memory is astounding, it is worth writing yourself a list so you can check these off as you go. Alternatively my workbook has a checklist to start you off.
Step 2: Get it all in one place
Decide on which device you want to use to carry out the rest of this process. Create a space that will be your designated "work area" for your project.
For me, I want to do this work from my laptop. But I also want to sync my data to the Cloud - so that I don't lose everything if something happens to my laptop.
Then copy all your data to that place.
This could actually be much trickier than it sounds.
One obvious obstacle is if your device cannot read old hardware. If this is the case, you will need to get hold of a device that plugs into your USB port, such as a floppy disc drive or a CD drive.
A second difficulty you might encounter if you are using third parties to store your data. For example, you'll need to download an extra tool if you want to export your pictures from Instagram.
There is also a third issue that is more hidden. Some the files that you copy across may become corrupted in the process. There are various tools to help with this - e.g. Fixity - and some very thorough guidelines. I will be writing more about this in the future too, so (a) don't panic and (b) stay tuned.
Step 3: Organise your stuff and declutter
Go through what you have. I don't mean open every single file - or even every single folder. Have a browse, and remind yourself of the main categories of stuff you are keeping.
For me, this is
- writing projects (in various stages of completion)
- coursework from school and university
- photographs (from cameras and phones)
- personal finance spreadsheets
- things by other people that I want to read or refer to, or have done in the past
- photos and cool things that people have sent me as email attachments
- my Downloads folder (a total mess!)
Amongst all this stuff, you will find some things you want to keep forever. There will be some things you want to keep for now. And there will be some things you don't want to keep at all.
Now is a great time to work out which is which.
There is an article coming up in the next few weeks to help you identify your digital treasures. (Feel free to join my email community if you would like me to send it to you when I publish it!)
Step 4: Decide where to store your archive
The things to think about when choosing where to keep your digital treasures are:
a. Back-ups. You want lots of copies of your data. And you want copies in lots of different locations.
b. Accessibility. At least one of the copies you make should be in a location you can access from any device. This will prevent you losing everything if something happens to one of your devices.
c. Automate everything you can. Save yourself from having to manually add all the new things you create to your archive. Instead, set things up to synchronise across your locations.
d. Security. Most of the time, a tool like Dropbox will be fine. But if you have sensitive data - particularly if you are a small business - you may need something more secure. You may decide that zero knowledge encryption is a feature that you need. In which case, something like synch.com may be better.
This is all common sense. So decide what you're going to do. And do it.
Step 5: Create your digital archive
Create an organised system for storing the things you want to keep long-term. I have an article coming up that will walk you through how to set up a folder structure using PowerShell.
The key to this is future-proofing.
Cater to your lazy lizard brain. Make it easier to add new things to the system, than it would be not to. If you can automate it, that is brilliant.
Also, set the system up in a way that keeps the things you want to keep forever separate from everything else. This makes it so much easier to go back later and delete things once you don't need them any more.
Step 6: Move your data to your digital archive
Now populate your new file structure with all your stuff.
And while you're doing that, give it a bit of a tidy up.
By which I mean, stick like with like, and cram as much info as you can into your file and folder names. An excellent free tool for this is Adobe Bridge. Amongst other things, Bridge lets you batch rename files, which is super useful.
Now, you can just copy and paste this like a normal human.
Or, if you are very keen, there are a couple of extra things to consider. Running a fixity/checksum test would ensure everything gets copied without any issues. And taking steps to keep on top of the file formats you are using, to make sure they remain readable long-term.
Step 7: Delete!
This is the most rewarding step: clearing out all the old junk and clutter. This whole project should be saving you space, and making you feel organised.
So you should actually delete the stuff you don’t want.
BUT not right away!
That was a big re-organisation; there is a chance you forgot something.
Set up a place where you store things for a short time after you have decided to delete them. Then get into the routine of emptying that folder. on a regular basis.
Step 8: Care for your digital treasures a little and often
From now on, you need to check in with your archive every so often.
You will have a system in place to incorporate all your new stuff as you are going along.
Some things you need to care about are:
1. The bits. The ones and zeros that make up your work. Run fixity tests to check things aren't degrading or corrupting over time.
2. The hardware. You should be storing everything in your digital archive. Check there aren't things hiding on other carriers (SD cards, your laptop's desktop etc.)
3. The file formats. Do your file formats need special software to read them? Is that software still current? The sooner you catch things going obsolete, the easier it is to migrate your files.
4. Afterlife. Who knows about your digital archive? Do they know how much you care about it? It's morbid to say, but make sure the right people know where to find the things that are significant to you. Who would you like to leave your digital treasures to? How are you going to make sure your work outlives you?
As I said at the start, there is no such thing as "benign neglect" with digital records. You have invested so much work in creating the things, and in setting up your digital archive. You would only do that if you felt your work was worth it. You owe it to yourself to put in a little effort on a regular basis to make sure everything stays safe for the long term.
I have covered a lot in this post. You are awesome for reading all the way to the end - I hope it has been helpful.
There are some tools and other things you might find useful on my Resources page. I will also keep adding to the list, so definitely check back every now and again.
I will be breaking most this down and going into more depth in future posts. There are more 'How To' guides coming, and other articles to help you care for your digital treasures. If that sounds good to you, I would love for you to join my community! I will send you a monthly email with all my new articles. You will also get my FREE How to Start Your Digital Archive worksheet. Just drop me your address in the box below.
Thanks so much for reading. Good luck! I'd love to know how you get on!