Tag Archives: digital preservation

Awkward Adventures in Digital Forensics

So, this happened at work yesterday:

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Yep, that happened.

I should probably back up:

Libraries and archives have been long familiar with all manner of ways to handle, preserve, provide access to, and generally “deal with” paper- (and film-) based materials (letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, microfilm, etc.)—-you know, the stuff you can hold IN YOUR HANDS and see what it is—-and even, to a reasonable extent stuff you can’t see what it is just by looking at it (audio/video tapes?).

And then there’s all this “new” digital stuff. I say “new” in quotation marks because, hey, it’s really not THAT new. But it’s a lot newer than, say, paper. But it’s new enough. New enough that for many years, archivists have been sort of…shall we just say, not dealing with it quite to the extent that one might have hoped?

Digital stuff — floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, hard drives, etc. (not to mention your online life, like webmail and social media) — actually takes a lot more coddling than the paper stuff. Did you ever go up to your grandmother’s attic or your father’s garage and stumble onto a box of neat paper stuff from like 50+ years ago? And you rummaged through it, awed by all the neat things you either never saw before or had completely forgotten about?  Who hasn’t done that, right?

Well, if in 50 years, you stumble onto a box of today’s records, you might be out of luck because there’s a good chance those records will be stored on some type of digital media. Yep, imagine you just found a box of CDs, or better yet floppy disks. Imagine a box of floppy disks in 50 years. You have enough trouble finding the drive you need to read those NOW, am I right?

USB floppy disk drive

USB floppy disk drives are about $15 on Amazon – if you have floppies, get one and start your migration now, while you still can!

OK, so digital media present a variety of challenges to archivists. It’s actually pretty fragile (keep away from light, heat, and in some cases magnets); it’s dependent on technology/hardware to read it (not just your eyes or a magnifying glass); and it can’t survive by accident like a box of papers could. And those are just some of the problems of keeping the data “alive.” Not to mention figuring out how to arrange and describe the files or to provide access to them.

(Here’s a tip: Writing the equivalent of “oh there’s also 1 floppy disk” somewhere in your finding aid probably isn’t going to be super helpful. What’s on it? Do you even know? Can you trust the label—if there even is one? And if it’s on floppy disk, how are you going to let patrons use it? Do you have a floppy disk drive available? And how are you going to make sure that nobody accidentally overwrites the data? Oh and what if the floppy disk spontaneously stops working at some point — or already has — and who hasn’t experienced that?—no comments from those of you too young to even remember floppy disks!— Man those transparent neon ones were the worst for failing at inopportune times—probably due to light damage, I know now!)

OK so there are all these…problems. And a lot of archives have been sort of sweeping this problem under the rug for a while now. Well, the research about how to deal with these problems seems to have been growing rather exponentially over the past several years, and so a lot of us are finally getting our digital act together and attempting to figure out what to do…including the archives where I work.

My co-worker Toni (as the preservation archivist) and I (as the digital initiatives archivist) have been charged with learning how to handle our collections’ digital preservation needs. We’ve been attending “digital preservation” and “electronic records” workshops (SAA’s Digital Forensics for Archivists 2-day workshop was fantastic); reading up on all sorts of things (highly recommend OCLC’s Demystifying Born Digital Reports as a starting point for anyone interested in this topic- they’re simple & to the point, but great); and downloading & experimenting (on test data sets/disks only) with free & trial software (such as FTK Imager). We have learned about using write-blockers and creating disk images to capture the entire contents of a piece of media without inadvertently changing it or missing anything.

Which brings us to what happened yesterday—and another lesson in digital stuff (and this lesson is for everyone, not just archivists).

So we were experimenting with FTK Imager yesterday afternoon, and we popped in a floppy disk I had brought from home. It had a blank adhesive label on it (on which I later wrote my name once I discovered the contents), and we had used Windows Explorer to drag/drop two boring Microsoft Office documents onto it so we were sure there would be something to image.

Here’s what the contents of that floppy disk looked like to Microsoft Windows (2 files):

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Then, we used FTK Imager to create a disk image, capturing ALLLLLLLL of the contents of that disk——including remnants of any deleted files that were never overwritten. That’s right, I said deleted files.

So when we looked at the disk contents in FTK Imager, here’s what we saw (and that’s about the time my jaw dropped and I started with the nervous “omigod-blast-from-the-past-in-a-bad-way” laughter as Toni looked over my shoulder probably wondering if I had gone mad):

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Um yeah, that’s more than the 2 files I was expecting. Apparently, this was a disk that I DID use…in 2002…and still had lying around. I recognized (and was immediately mortified by the presence of) a diary entry from an ex-boyfriend, nor was I thrilled about what those chat logs from AOL Instant Messenger (hey remember that?) might contain. I also recognized other innocuous MS Office documents: Excel files containing lists of all my classes & grades, Word documents with translations for Latin class (such as the copy of Tacitus’s Annales you can see selected in the image—notice that you can see the hex as well as the text in the window underneath), and other things that looked like school stuff. (We actually exported and opened some of these files I deemed definitely-not-embarrassing. — Oh, and I have since, in the privacy of my own home, looked at that diary entry and the chat logs—-all totally harmless, but who doesn’t have things from sophomore year of college that they’d rather not revisit in front of co-workers?)

We actually were able to learn some things during this experiment, some of which actually pertained to what we were trying to do, but the most salient of these lessons (for me at least) was this:

The IT folks are not just making things up when they tell you that your files are not really gone simply because you hit delete and you cannot “see” them in your operating system anymore. The data is still there unless it is overwritten.

All you did was delete the pointer to that data, cluing your drive in that it can reuse that space if it wants to. If you tore the index pages out of the back of a book, does the content of the book cease to exist? Nope. Sort of like that. If you are interested in a technical explanation of what’s going on when you delete files and why they’re not really gone, I highly recommend this blog post: How-To Geek Explains: Why Deleted Files Can Be Recovered and How You Can Prevent It.

But the bottom line is that when you delete a file, it’s not really gone. I knew this. I KNEW this. But knowing it on the level of “I read it in a book and I’ve heard knowledgeable people say it also,” and knowing it on the level of “omigod I just saw the proof” are not the same. (This must be why they make you do lab experiments in chem class…)

And omigod I just saw the proof. And that was WAY. TOO. EASY.

So. HTG (How-To Geek) suggests some ways to actually truly erase data if/when you need to. But personally, if I had something I wanted to never see the light of…well, a screen…again EVER, then I would only be satisfied with the physical destruction of the media (better copy anything you actually DO want onto a new drive first though). So, to conclude, for your viewing enjoyment, here are some YouTube videos of people physically destroying data on:

…hard drives (you’re going to need a hammer to bust up the platters inside)…

…floppy disks (some of the videos just crinkled them but I wouldn’t trust anything that doesn’t involve cutting up that magnetic disk)…

…and CDs (oh there are tons for this one—who hasn’t tried the microwave one? the melting one is fun—and of course there’s always just breaking it—but one guy even claims to have 101 ways)…

OK, that’s enough fun for now. Hopefully I was able to turn this slightly embarrassing work story into a teachable moment! And yes, I have taken that disk home with me and it will be getting destroyed…

Carry on, folks, and listen to your IT guys!

Ex post facto reference: Saving digital photos to floppy disks? (Don’t)

Yesterday on my Search Terms (under my blog stats), I noticed the following question: “can i save my digital pictures to old floppy disks”?

Oh my…where to even begin?

Floppy disk by Giovy.it, on Flickr

Floppy disk by Giovy.it, on Flickr

I’ll tell you the short answer right up front, but not without a little bit of English-language semantic snark:

Can you save your digital photos to old floppy disks? Maybe. It depends on the file size and which old floppy disks (3.5″? 5.25″?) we’re talking about.

But I think the question you really want to ask is: Should you save your  digital photos to old floppy disks? And the answer to that is a resounding NO. No, no, no. No, thanks. No way. Do not want. Even hell to the no. And I’ll tell you why in a minute.


But first, let’s assume that for some unfathomable reason you MUST save your digital photos to old floppy disks. (Maybe it’s a scenario like that poster my math teacher used to have where the kid’s “why do I need to know this?” question is being answered by means of some ruffian putting a gun to his head and demanding that he “solve for x” in some equation. But I digress…)

First, let’s talk about what you mean by “old floppy disks”. How “old” are we talking, here? Do you mean “old” style — like, oldschool floppy disks you just bought new at the store (yes, some stores still sell them)? Or are they actually OLD — like, you found vintage ’80s and ’90s floppy disks in a box in your basement? (This plays into my “should you” argument more than “can you”, but it’s still something to clarify.) For the sake of this example (exempli gratia), let’s assume that whatever floppy disks you have, they’re currently in good shape. Somehow.

And are you referring to the 3.5″ floppy disks — the ones we all used in the late ’90s with the hard shell?

floppy disks for breakfast by Blude, on Flickr

floppy disks for breakfast by Blude, on Flickr

Or are we going back even older to the 5.25″ floppy disks — the more-common-in-the-’80s ones that are actually flimsy.

5.25 inch floppy disks by avlxyz, on Flickr

5.25 inch floppy disks by avlxyz, on Flickr

Here’s where “can you” comes into play. The capacity of those “old” floppy disks in most cases is going to be less than 3 MB per disk. Most 3.5″ floppy disks you will run across are going to be 1.44 MB. Most 5.25″ floppy disks are going to be less than that. The capacity can vary even among disks of the same size — I did not even realize how much it can vary until I looked at this chart on Wikipedia’s Floppy Disk article — but if we are talking “old floppy disks,” we are going to be talking small storage capacity compared to what’s available in newer technologies, no matter how you slice it. (For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to assume that the “old floppy disks” we’re talking about are probably the 3.5 inch, 1.44 MB ones, from here on out, because as a child of the ’90s, those are the ones I used most, and those are the ones I tend to find lying around more often than the older 5.25″ ones — although my Dad still has a bunch of them.)

And now let’s think about the file sizes of digital photos today. Obviously, it depends on the number of megapixels your camera is capable of capturing, as well as the quality it is actually set on. All of the cameras I use on a regular basis are 5-6 megapixels, which, according to this chart I found, should yield digital photos that are about 2.5 megabytes each. (And yes, that is about right, judging from the photos saved on my computer. But I’ve linked to the chart in case your camera has a different number of megapixels — which it probably does.)

Okay, so let’s compare: If 1 photo is 2.5 megabytes and 1 floppy disk is 1.44 megabytes, how many photos can you fit on that floppy? The answer is zero. (Well, unless you want to use some kind of file-splitting utility — remember WinRar? — but if you knew how to do that, I’m going to assume you wouldn’t still be trying to save digital photos on floppy disks. No offense.)

Now, sure, if your camera is only 2 megapixels, that’s only going to be about 900 KB (about 0.9 megabytes), so yes, you could fit one onto a floppy disk. Or, if you have scanned some photos at a really low quality — like back in the Day before I knew better and scanned a bunch of photos at 150 dpi, making each 4×6 photo file about 20-80 KB — then, you could probably fit several on a floppy disk (but even then it would only be like 15 files).

Something else to consider in the whole “can you” side of things is the hardware involved.

I’m going to assume that if you’re asking whether you can save digital photos to floppy disks, that you already have a plethora of floppy disks (and trust me, you will need a LOT of them), either from some dusty box in your closet or some (probably also dusty) ones that you bought at the store.

But do you still have a floppy disk drive? Does your current computer still look something like these?

Old Computers: Give Away or Recycle? by kalebdf, on Flickr

Old Computers: Give Away or Recycle? by kalebdf, on Flickr

See how prominently the floppy disk drive was featured in these older computers? That Dell on the right even has it molded right into the case. (We used to have one like that, perhaps that very model. We bought it in 1999.)

But these days, many computers don’t come with floppy disk drives in them anymore. They went out of laptops first (kind of like how a lot of laptops don’t even have CD drives anymore these days). Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop computer that comes with a floppy disk drive.

If you don’t have a working floppy disk drive, you can still buy an external one that connects by USB.

External floppy disk drive by Nicholas Chan, inicholas.net

Photo by Nicholas Chan / NCDN, inicholas.net, via Flickr

I actually have one of these (similar to the one above) for whenever I find a random floppy disk at the house and need to find out what’s on it and whether I want to continue saving the data (in which case I transfer it to another media).

Okay, I think those are all the aspects I wanted to cover in the “can you” analysis.

And so, the answer to “Can you save digital photos to old floppy disks?” is: If you have a perfect storm of actually having digital photos small enough to fit onto whatever size floppy disk you have; if that floppy disk is functional and you have access to the equipment (i.e. floppy drive) necessary to read/write to that floppy disk….then, yes, technically, you can save digital photos (though probably not more than 1 unless they are really low quality) to a floppy disk.

But, more importantly:


As I said before, the quick and dirty, just-give-me-the-bottom-line-and-spare-me-the-sermon answer is NO. Don’t do it.

If you want the sermon portion, read on. (Haha – who am I kidding? Obviously you are interested in the explanation of things, or you would have quit reading long before now.)

I’ve already mentioned obsolescence. Even the original questioner used the word “old” in his/her query. Floppy disks are old. Even if you bought them new, they are old. They are an old format of media. There is no good reason to cling to them as a solution for storing today’s files. You will have trouble finding them; you will have trouble finding the necessary hardware to access them. Even if you still have the hardware to access them, what about when it stops working? You will have trouble replacing it.

So move on. Move on now. And please jump ahead to today’s storage solutions; don’t meander your way through all the media that came in between floppy disks and today. If you want some advice about today’s storage options, check out my earlier blog post about Saving your digital photos, Part 2: How to do it (6/12/2012).

Another reason why you shouldn’t use floppy disks is, as I have touched on already, the ratio of digital photo file size to the disk’s storage capacity. That is, the size of a single digital photo file is way too close to the maximum storage capacity of a floppy disk. You won’t be able to store very many digital photos on a floppy disk, unless they are (for whatever reason) really low quality. As an example: I went to a wedding the other day. I took over 120 digital photos, all of which are more than 1.44 MB each. Even if I had set the camera down to 2 megapixels – which would be a bad idea in itself but let’s just pretend I went crazy and did it – then I would have files of 0.9 MB each (according to the chart linked above), I would still need one floppy disk for each photo. That’s 120+ floppy disks.

Think about that from a financial and physical storage space standpoint. It doesn’t make sense. It’s going to cost you a fortune to store your all your digital photo files on floppy disks (unless, okay, you already own a bunch, which is probably the real reason you’re asking). AND, they are going to take up a ton of space.

floppies by functoruser, on Flickr

floppies by functoruser, on Flickr

Alternatively, you could store the same 120 photo files — which, at 0.9 MB each, that comes to about 108 MB — on a single CD (with tons of space to spare) for a cost of about $1 or even on something like Dropbox cloud storage for free (you get 2 gigabytes for free).

One more really important thing to consider as to why you shouldn’t still be using floppy disks (for digital photos or anything else) is their tendency to fail – completely and unexpectedly – for no apparent reason. It’s like one day, the disk is perfectly fine, and then the next day, it simply will not read. It’s like it committed suicide without ever seeming depressed or even leaving a note; it gave no warning signs and you had no idea anything was even wrong until it was too late.

(And then, in our anger and frustration, many of us — myself included — had a tendency to do this — am I right?

Death of the floppy disk (42/365) by Rob Hayes., on Flickr

Death of the floppy disk (42/365) by Rob Hayes., on Flickr

I’m not suggesting that other types of media don’t fail. They do. Oh, boy do they ever, sometimes. So you should always have backups (second copies) of things you actually want to protected from loss (again, see my Saving your digital photos entries from June 2012). But floppy disks just seem to be worse about randomly kicking the bucket, compared to most other media I’ve used. CDs, you can see the scratches; hard drives usually start making the “click of death”. Floppy disks tend to…just keel over one day.

Anyway, bottom line is : You really shouldn’t still be trying to use “old floppy disks” for your storage needs, for digital photos or anything else. The reasons for that being (to reiterate):

  • The media is already obsolete;
  • The storage capacity is too small to be useful for most file types these days (or for holding more than a handful of said files); and
  • Floppy disks have  tendency to fail epically without warning (worse than other media I’ve used).

So in answer to the original question: “can i save my digital pictures to old floppy disks”? You might be able to, if all the stars align. But should you? Absolutely not.

And if you have old floppy disks lying around and you are still reluctant to just chuck them in the bin? The only uses I can, in good conscience, recommend for those old floppies involve arts and crafts, such as these lovely examples:

Project 365 #30: 300109 Never Say Die by comedy_nose, on Flickr

Project 365 #30: 300109 Never Say Die by comedy_nose, on Flickr


Sunday DIY - Floppy Disk Pen Holder - 5/5 by rintakumpu, on Flickr

Sunday DIY – Floppy Disk Pen Holder – 5/5 by rintakumpu, on Flickr

Have fun!

Save your digital photos, Part 3: Why you need to do it (Photo Reprise)

Okay, so Part 2 was a bit verbose. Sorry. I suppose you could say I am nothing if not thorough?

I warned my husband that it had gotten a bit long, and after he read it, his comment was: “You were right. It does make you sound a bit insane!”

To which, I replied: “Better insane than sorry.”

And I stand by that.

However, if you made it this far in the series, I want to remind you simply about why I posted that seemingly endless outline for my digital photo preservation strategy: to help you preserve your own digital memories.

And since they say that “a photo is worth 1000 words,” I thought I’d drive the point home by simply sharing a selection of digital memories that I personally wouldn’t want to see lost.

(All photos below are either from my own personal collection or those of my friends/family, used with permission.)

If this doesn’t impress upon you the reason I wrote Parts 1 & 2 — and why I want to burn the bottom-line concept of LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe!) into your brain — I don’t know what will.

And, go:











The Aisle



The Kiss



Out the Doors



Cakey Kiss



The Wind



The WHOLE family



Dancing with my 90-year-old grandfather (who died in 2008)



Seeing the house where grandpa was born (in Italy)



57 years and 7 kids later



Forum at Rome, Italy



Smoky Mountain Honeymoon



Erectheion at Athens, Greece



Cades Cove, TN



New Family



Meeting Mom and Dad



Day 1


All photographic moments that can never — NEVER — be replaced.

If that thought doesn’t make you want to make an active effort to preserve your digital memories (and the print ones, too), then no amount of words from me can help you.

Thanks to my family and friends who gave me permission to use their photos.

Save your digital photos, Part 2: How I do it

In Part 1 of “Save your digital photos,” I listed a number of reasons why you should be backing up your digital photos.

And I mentioned LOCKSS, which I will reiterate and emphasize again here, is the TLDNR take-away message I want you to get from both Parts 1 and 2. If you read or remember nothing else, please just always remember this rule of thumb in regards to your digital files, and (assuming you follow it) you should be good to go:

LOCKSS = Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Also in Part 1, I mentioned this OHS blog post with “Tips for Saving Your Digital Photographs”. My own personal digital photo preservation routine seems to fall within the parameters they recommend, so I thought maybe I would share the specifics of it here, to give an idea of what a home user might do to ensure that their digital photogrpahs will both exist, and be accessible, for a long time.


And now, for some minutiae.

The following are the details of my own personal digital preservation regimen. (So, to be clear, this is what I do at home, not in my professional capacity as an archivist at the library.)

My way is certainly not the only solution or even necessarily the best. But I feel that it has served me well in the past. I can confidently say, “If my laptop died tomorrow, I really wouldn’t be that upset about it, because I know all my stuff is safely stored in multiple places.”


Here is what I do, roughly broken down into steps:

Step 1: Download the photos.

At least once a month (I have a reminder set), I download the photos from my smart phone and my digital camera onto my computer’s hard drive. I usually leave the photos on the camera’s memory card, also, for about a month. For instance, at the end of May, I would copy all of May’s photos onto my hard drive, leave the a copy of the May photos on the camera, and delete the April photos still left on the camera. I usually dump this month’s photos into a virtual holding tank, a folder called (creatively enough) “New Pics,” until I am ready to organize them. (Don’t worry; I do the organizing pretty soon after the data dump. But I usually have to collect the images from two cameras and an iPhone before I start organizing, to make sure I have everything.)

Why do Step 1? Copying your photos from your camera devices onto your hard drive gives you a second copy of them and protects you from losing the photos if you lose your camera or phone. (I know some cell phones have “cloud” backup, but I bet your digital camera probably doesn’t.) However, this only works until the memory in your camera or phone fills up. You will need a more long-term solution (see Step 4+), also, but this is good for starters.

Step 2: Create & utilize named folders.

I have folders for each month (e.g., “2011-10 Oct”), with descriptively named folders for each event in that month. I usually use the ISO 8601 date and then a descriptive name, such as: “2011-12-25 Christmas.” If I have random pictures (no particular event), I just toss them into the appropriate month’s folder.

Why do Step 2? It’s easy to accumulate a lot of digital photos (since they are cheap and easy to create!), and they can become a jumbled, unmanageable mess pretty easily. Also, if you have photos from the same event but different cameras, the potentially different sequential file naming schemes might not keep them next to each other in your “All My Photos Ever” folder. Step 2 does not technically do anything to help preserve the images themselves, but it will help preserve the meaning of the photos. (Ever found a bunch of old photos and thought, “Gee, I wonder what was going on here?” or “Grandma looks so young; I wonder what year this was?” Yeah, thought so.)

Step 2b: Cull the collection.

Once you’ve got all the photos from a certain event in front of you, take a few minutes to delete any you don’t need or want. Delete pocket shots (the camera equivalent of “butt dialing“). At least consider deleting blurry ones and ones with really unfortunate facial expressions. If you have several shots that are nearly identical, consider choosing the best one and deleting the rest.

You could do this culling after Step 1 (file download) or after Step 3 (filenaming), but I think it makes the most sense after you’ve filed by event (so you can see everything together) but before you go to all the trouble of renaming everything.

Why do Step 2b? There are two good reasons to do this: #1 digital storage is pretty cheap these days, but it’s still not free; and #2 you won’t have to wonder “now which 2011 family Christmas photo did I decide was the best one?” every time you want it. (If you really want to keep all the shots even though it looks like a flipbook, you could mark the best one as “BEST” (so creative, I know) when filenaming (see step 3), but that doesn’t help you save storage space.)

A word of caution about Step 2b: On the flip side, don’t delete photos you actually want just to save space, unless you are really desperate. My husband fully supports my mass proliferation of photographs, reminding me: storage space is cheap.  So, if you really want it, find a way to keep it. (You can buy more CDs or a bigger hard drive; but once those photos are gone, they’re gone.)

Step 3: Create meaningful file names.

I change the generic photo filenames assigned by the camera to something more descriptive, which helps me find the image I want without having to look at every file. Again, I like the ISO 8601 date, the event, then the generically assigned file name (most cameras use a sequential numbering system so this keeps the photos in chronological order), and then sometimes info about the subject. For example: “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0099 opening gifts.jpg” or “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0100 Lisa Matt.jpg.” (Note: You should try to keep the file names short, because some operating systems have trouble with longer file names. I am not always good about keeping things short — you’ve read my blog, right? — so I am guilty of not doing this. But I still thought I ought to mention it.)

Meaningful folder and file names

Meaningful folder and file names


Okay, so you’ve got your photos from all your digital devices (go you!); you’ve organized them in relevant folders and given them meaningful filenames (woohoo!). Now, you want to make sure all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. You need to protect those image files against the many ways they can be lost (see Part 1).

If all else fails, remember LOCKSS: Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Step 4: Do regular external backups.

When I say “regular,” I mean pretty often. I do my backup of photos (as well as other files) once a week (another reminder is set).

And when I say “external,” I mean to another physical location besides your the hard drive to which you downloaded the photos in Step 1. I mean, create a regularly-updated second copy of your stuff somewhere. That “somewhere” could be an external hard drive, CDs, DVDs, cloud storage, USB drives, etc.

Personally, I don’t recommend CDs, DVDs, or USB drives (and do I even need to address floppy disks?) because they can go bad over time, and you have to remember to check them periodically (and possibly refresh them – which means, making copies on new disks/media to replace the old ones). I recommend using an external hard drive of some sort, because if you keep using the same drive every time to backup things, you will realize immediately when it goes bad because you are accessing it every week to make those backups. If you put your photos on a CD and throw it in a drawer, thinking, “Okay, there’s my backup for 2011,” then in a few years when your computer crashes, you might find that CD can’t be read anymore either. Then what? You just lost 2011’s photos.

By using a hard drive, which I will access frequently to make additional backups (thereby acting as a check to make sure it’s still working, without having to remember to check it for no other reason than checking it), I don’t have to remember the CDs (or DVDs or USB sticks or SD cards or whatever) that I stowed away years ago and hope they still work when I need them; or to remember to check them every 6-12 months or so.

Nevertheless, any backup media you choose to use is better than none at all. Because if you make any backup copies, there’s at least a chance they’ll still work when you need them. If you make no copies at all, I guarantee you will lose those photos when your computer/phone/camera dies.

In my case, I use an external hard drive system called a NAS — Network-Attached Storage — which has a two-disk RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configuration.

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

Without getting too technical, this means that I can backup my files over our home network to this little box that has two identical hard drives in it (in our case, 1 terabyte each). Although the box technically contains 2 TB of space, you can only fill up one disk’s worth of space – in my case, 1 TB – because the second disk exists solely to backup the first. So, in this way, I actually have a double backup going on. If one of the two disks goes bad, I still have a backup.

Why do Step 4? You need an external second copy of your files in case your first copy gets lost, stolen, destroyed, corrupted, or otherwise killed in some way.

Step 5: Keep an off-site backup.

Now, if you opted to go with cloud storage for your Step 4, where your photos are backed up over the Internet, then you may not need to do Step 5 also. Theoretically, anyone with any business running a cloud storage service should have your files protected in multiple ways, and obviously this storage is off-site because it is stored on the company’s servers in who-knows-where. So, if you used cloud storage for Step 4, you are probably covered on Step 5 also.

I do use online storage for part of my Step 5. I have an account at Smugmug, where I am able to backup an unlimited number of photos for $40 per year. The site has lots of cool features (and no, they aren’t paying me to promote them), but I mostly got the account for backup purposes. However, I have since implemented another off-site backup solution, since the cost for restoring all my images from Smugmug would be pretty high.

As my other off-site backup solution, I have a second pair of external hard drives (in addition to the ones in the NAS). I keep one of the drives at my house at any given time and make weekly backups to it, just like I do the NAS. The other drive is at my parents’ house, 100+ miles away. Whenever I visit my parents (usually every few months), I swap the two hard drives.

One of my off-site backup solutions

One of my off-site backup solutions

Why do Step 5? Keeping an off-site backup gives you an additional layer of protection against more types of loss. Let’s say you do Steps 1-4, but your backup is stored at your house, along with your computer. What if someone steals your computer and your external hard drive? What if your home is destroyed by a fire or natural disaster? If it’s a house fire, then storing your off-site backup at a friend’s house nearby will save you, but what if it’s a major disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or flood? Odds are, if your friend’s house is in the same metro area, it will be affected also. Ideally, you would want your off-site storage several hundred miles away. This is another plus to cloud storage, because odds are, those servers are going to be hundreds of miles away from you and probably spread across many different locations.

My swap-a-hard-drive-at-Mom-and-Dad’s-house method is pretty good, but it might be a couple of months out-of-date. But at least I can get those last couple of months’ of picturse off of Smugmug. It’s a lot easier to copy the files from a hard drive than to get them back from the Internet either through download or ordering CDs (which would be expensive and I don’t even want to think about how many CDs I would need to order from them).

Step 6: Print out the pictures.

Any photos that I want to be accessible for many years, I have printed. Yes, this costs money. Do it anyway. I don’t recommend printing your photos at home; photo print services have better machines, processes, and inks. Just leave it to the pro’s. Personally, I use Shutterfly (and no they aren’t paying me), but there are many good ones.

Another plus to using an online photo printing site is that it can be an off-site backup, depending on how long the photos are stored there. You can order photo CDs if you need to. In fact, as I was fact-checking to write this, I learned that Shutterfly now has unlimited free photo storage; they didn’t used to, which was part of why I got Smugmug, among other things. Anyway, the point is: free online photo storage – with the option to order your photos on CDs (if you need them later) – does exist, so there’s really no good excuse not to do it. If you don’t have Internet access, go to the public library; furthermore, if you don’t have Internet access, how are you even reading this?

I like Shutterfly because the pictures look good, they aren’t too expensive ($0.15 per 4×6, currently), and (perhaps the biggest factor why I use them) they print the filename on the back. Remember all that filenaming you did? Yeah, here’s another way it pays off. Not necessarily having to rewrite all that again on the back of your prints. Although, you might want to write on them; that the pre-printed filename may rub off eventually. Without going off on a tangent about the best way to archivally label your photos, just please make sure your prints are labeled in some way (Step 6b) – or else you’ll still have the whole, “What was going on here and when?” scenario years later, if you don’t transfer the descriptions to the prints also.

Why do Step 6? For all the time I’ve spent developing and implementing my plan for how to keep my digital photos safe, I must admit, I still don’t 100% trust digital-only. I could write a whole separate blog entry about why that is, but suffice it to say that anything digital is always going to be technology-dependent, meaning you will need certain equipment and software in order to access it.

You know what’s not technology-dependent? Hard copy. That’s why you can still rummage through Grandma’s box of photos, even though the camera or even the negatives may be long gone. Back in the Day, the only option for enjoying your photos was to have prints made. And as long as those prints exist and you’ve got eyes to see, you’ll be able to enjoy them. You won’t be rooting around looking for a way to access that old hard drive or disk — assuming the media hasn’t gone bad — in 2050. You can just kick back with an album or box of pictures. Old School.

No special equipment required.

No special equipment required.


Okay, I know that was very long and involved and full of details. Part of that is because I’m verbose. But part of that is because actually managing to effectively preserve your photo memories in this day and age is involved. You must make a conscious effort to do it. And for some people, simply telling them, “You need to backup your photos,” is not really all that helpful. So I thought perhaps sharing something a little more step-by-step might be helpful.

This post is an example of one possible plan for keeping your digital photos safe. There are many options. And, like I have said, the way described here (“my” way) is not the only way or even necessarily the best way. But I think I have all the major bases covered. I can say with some degree of confidence that if my laptop kicked the bucket tomorrow (again, knock on wood), all my photos are safe because they exist somewhere else (in some cases multiple somewheres). I would even go so far as to say that if my house burned to the ground with all my physical belongings inside (WAY knock on wood), I could replace all of my digital photos except maybe the last week’s worth.

So while some might call all of this “overkill,” I call it “peace of mind.”

Save your digital photos, Part 1: Why you need to do it

I can’t remember the last time I so much as held a film camera. I have been shooting all my photos with a digital camera for years now. I’d be willing to bet that many of the rest of you have been doing the same. It’s quick, easy, convenient, cheap (free even – after the initial cost of the camera – because you don’t have to pay to develop film, and prints are optional), etc. So go ahead, take 10 shots of that weird bug you found on your porch.

My favorite part of digital photography is the ability to take a photo, check it, and take it again if you don’t like it – no more disappointment when you get the film back; no more taking 3 shots “just in case” (and still maybe not getting a good one).

What’s not to love, right?

Well, from an archivist’s perspective: a lot.

To a certain extent, I think a lot of archival and historical material manages to survive “by accident.” Once something is committed to a tangible medium, such as paper (a printed photograph, a letter, a diary, a newspaper, or whatever), it is pretty much going to remain in existence (somewhere) until it is physically destroyed in some way (thrown away, burned, flooded, shredded, etc.). Even materials stored in horrid conditions still sometimes manage to survive and are perfectly usable after decades. (Remember that box of old photos you found in Grandma’s sweltering attic? Okay, not the best storage location, but by God, they were in that shoebox and still perfectly viewable. And hopefully you rescued them to a more appropriate storage spot, like a main floor closet. Right? RIGHT?!)

Now, don’t get me wrong, your digital photos are still perfectly susceptible to dying in a fire or any of those other things I described — whether it’s the camera itself, the media card, your hard drive, or your prints. But in my opinion, digital photos are actually more fragile than old-school film/print photographs, because it actually seems to take a lot more work to keep them safe.

With both regular film photos and digital photos, you have to snap the picture, and you have the option to make prints. If you make prints and keep them safe the same way you would your old came-from-a-film-negative prints, then you are reasonably good to go on that front, as far as preserving your memories. But with the digital photos, you have no film negative – so what if you want to make another print? You need the original digital photo. (You could make a copy from one of your prints—if you have any—but it wouldn’t be as good of quality because it’s really a copy of a copy; the digital is the original.)

So what should you do to protect those digital photos, to ensure that they will both exist, and be accessible to you, for a long time?

The Ohio Historical Society’s recent blog post “Tips for Saving Your Digital Photographs” (May 7, 2012) has lots of great general advice in regards to safeguarding your digital photographs. In addition to general tips on how and where to save your files, the post has advice about the best way to use CD-Rs as a backup method, file formats and naming, and making prints.

I am pleased to report that my personal practices in regards to digital photo preservation seem to fall within the recommendations made in that OHS blog post, so in Part 2, I will share the specific details of my digital photo preservation regimen.

But before I get into any minutiae, I want to drill one thing into your head. If you take nothing else away from this article, please, for the love of God, remember LOCKSS, an acronym meaning “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.”

Golden Rule of Saving Digital Content: Remember LOCKSS = Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.

If you only have one copy of something, especially if that something is digital, I can almost guarantee you that at some point, you are going to lose it. It will not be a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” and “how.”

Ever had your hard drive or disk crash and just stop working with little or no warning? Had your computer zapped by lightning? Spilled a drink in your laptop? Had your computer get virus’d, hacked, or stolen? Lost your USB thumb drive? Had your camera or cell phone get lost or stolen? Dropped your camera or cell phone (perhaps into a body of water)? Left your electronics in the car on a hot day?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Hey, you’re not alone. These things happen to the best of us. Now, the question is, the next time one of those things happens to you, how many of your precious memories will be lost along with your electronics?

Now that I’ve really got your attention, stay tuned for Part 2, and I’ll tell you exactly what I do to keep my photos safe from the disasters described above (and doubtless many that I can’t even think of right now).