Which way to personal digital preservation?

Today I came across a video from the Library of Congress on “Why digital preservation is important for you.” Anyone following its advice will certainly have a better chance of keeping their files alive and organized for a long time. The only question is: Who’s going to follow that advice?

Here’s a summary: Go through all your devices and loose media to identify what you have. Select what you want to save. (If there are fourteen slides of a mountain, thirteen of them can go.) Gather everything into one folder, with subfolders if you like. Including the date and subject in the folder titles is a good idea. Transfer your selected files from all the different places (“your camera, cell phone, drives, CDs, and so on”) to the archive folder. Save the highest quality master version if there’s a choice. Give each file a descriptive name. Make backup copies. If you use a CD or flash drive, it may be obsolete and useless in a few years, so use an external hard drive. Make a copy of the drive and store it in a different geographic location (backgrounds: a beach with palm trees, the Sphinx, the Sydney Opera House, etc.). Every five years, transfer the contents to a newer storage device. Use an online service as a secondary backup. Print out hard copies.

All good advice, but seriously, how many people will follow it rather than being scared away by the prospect? This is the archivist’s equivalent of telling people they need to run five miles a day and stop eating dessert. Preserving digital data isn’t a full-time job for most people, or even something they want to spend much time on. They want to keep their data with the least amount of effort possible.

In my Udemy course on personal digital preservation, I present an à la carte approach that’s less intimidating. The first thing is backup; if you have a good backup strategy and nothing else, you’re already ahead of the game. Next I get into making safe copies of data on all your devices. I discuss file recovery, then enter topics such as naming files, using metadata, and avoiding proprietary traps. Each topic gets its own lecture, to avoid a sense that you have to do everything or nothing.

My first round of notes took an approach not too different from the LoC video. Then I read them back as I would to the camera and thought: Can I really give anyone who’s not an archivist this advice with a straight face? I had to take a different approach, one that people can follow after their initial burst of enthusiasm cools. One which doesn’t require people to maintain a curated archive. One which relies as much as possible on automation, so it keeps happening even when you don’t do anything. One where the more suggestions you follow, the better, but you don’t have to do it all.

To get people to take preservation to heart, it’s necessary to address they can reasonably do. Maybe it helps that I’m not an archivist, just a software developer. For me it’s a victory when I can even persuade people to do regular backups. That gives me more realistic expectations.

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