A fellow attendee at a meeting for an exhibition asked me what else I was working on.
“I’m digitizing, preserving and archiving my professional, exhibition files, associated data for repositories… ” I said, watching his eyes glaze over as he nodded his agreement to the rhythm of my words. “And backing up files of my works-in-progress in case of… blah, blah, blah.” I gave up. Ever feel like you are talking to a bobblehead?
“Why,” he asked, a little dazed. “Aren’t repositories places where things are laid to rest?”
Repositories, I thought. That was his only take-away from what I said?
“No, repositories are places where things go to live,” I said. “You are mistaking repositories for graveyards. Repositories collect and preserve institutional and individual intellectual production for posterity and research. I am also creating an alternative location for my working files in case of… blah, blah, blah… ”
I know by his glazed look that I am losing him again. How little does this poor soul know about our technological future, I though. In fact, preserving the world as we know it seems to be the furthest thing from most people’s minds. Everyone seems to accept the myth that once data is on the Internet or a storage device, it lives forever. If you are a writer, you produce an enormous amount of copy that will live forever only if you take responsibility for preventing its disappearance. Files saved in various formats, including paper, get old and die, which means they are no longer machine accessible or human readable.
If you believe all those files on large floppy discs, compact diskettes, CD-ROMs, CDs, zip drives, flash drives, memory cards, expansion chips, cassettes, reels, computer hard drives, external hard drives, tablets, cell phones, clouds and more will be accessible or even viewable in the future, you may be sadly incorrect. The average life of a website is 2-5 years. Other static media may last 5-7 years if handled carefully and stored properly. That is the reason government and businesses stress and train staff in records management. Agencies and companies establish entire records management departments to satisfy the legal requirements for record creation, maintenance and use, and disposal.
What is a record?
- A record is evidence of procedures, decisions, policies, correspondence, drafts and other activities captured electronically or saved in any physical state or on any digital media.
As a professional writer, you have created thousands of records over the course of your career. Your book and article manuscripts are records, and so are their drafts. Your records include query letters to editors and publishers, publishing contracts, associated emails, book reviews by you and about your book, newspaper article contributions by you and coverage of you, fan mail, project reports, grant and competition applications, awards, rejection letters, letters of references, photographs, speech transcripts, video, audio and so on, all of which are records within some form of files that require your management. The most important aspect of records management is file names. Vague unrelated file names are essentially useless. Give files meaningful titles that will make sense so they remain accessible over time.
Records management generally deals with two types of records–temporary and permanent.
Temporary – Records that can be deleted as agency policy warrants expiration of usefulness or your records that are no longer needed.
Permanent – Records that need protection for all eternity such as records at the National Archives or records you are saving for repository archives.
On an individual professional level, records management may come down to a legal matter of challenging someone’s infringement of your copyright. If you are trying to prove your ownership and establish a timeline in the ownership of a certain literary work, against another party’s claim, it may help if you have maintained and preserved the lifecycle of your document files to support your claim to ownership.
The least you can do to save your records is to:
- Take inventory of files
- Select files worth saving
- Assign distinctive names to selected files
- Organize selected files into folders named for category
- Copy selected folders and files to two or more file storage devices
- Place storage devices in different physical locations
Remember the desk drawer filled with old diskettes? Let’s hope you haven’t delayed your file transfers too long. Are all those diskettes the same format or even the same size? And what machine do you own today that will open those antiquated files? Oh, and do not forget about the obsolete software you used to create the files–old word processing and scripting-writing software you have not used in decades. In fact, the software could be so old by now it’s not usable in your current computer. You will need a machine with a disc drive to read those diskettes. Hopefully you still have such a machine to retrieve those potential National Book Award novels and Oscar-caliber film scripts you promised yourself and your family you would finish and get published and produced.
Does your current computer have a ROM drive?
Did you use a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive to install the old software you used to create those files you now want to preserve? Can you locate the box that contains the software? What box, you may ask. We download most software now directly from the Internet. Did we call software, software back then, in the days before APPs?
At first, to help me hold on to old files longer, I tried to retain a working technology museum, a fancy name for a stockpile of old computers and equipment that still worked, somewhat, so I could access old data formats for later migration, a fancy term for copying files to new formats and devices. When old file formats disappeared, I believed my antiquated data files were safe as long as I protected them from insects, dust, light, friction and wicked witches. I was literally burying myself under mountains of bulky equipment, which I had long forgotten how to use. Why was I making myself miserable living among all that clutter? Because I thought I could postpone file migration a bit longer.
Old equipment, technology and file formats are just that! Old!
- Old equipment breaks.
- Who is in business or even still alive to repair 40-year-old recorders?
- What is beta data anyway?
- Is there anyone left who knows?
Well, there is such a thing today as beta data, but through semantic changes in computer technology and language, new beta data are not the same as recordings on your obsolete broken-down Betamax video recorder, for which there is no efficient or affordable means to access dusty beta tapes in cardboard boxes from four generations ago. Although, I still have a hard time throwing them out. Maybe an ancient soul trained in Betamax technology repair will show up needing work one day. Crinkled VHS tapes have also been relegated to the analog tape cemetery along with Betamax and early digital zip drives! I have no Betamax or zip drives left over from the stone ages, but I confess, I am hording a couple of VHS machines to transfer and convert my VHS recordings to Mp4 video format. I also keep an audio cassette player for transcribing oral history interviews I have conducted and speeches I have given. However, do not show up at my door with your boxes of VHS and audio cassette tapes hoping to for a conversion.
If your old equipment is able to power up, do not get too excited. Your ancient files probably will not open. File formats spoil with age like unrefrigerated perishable food stored in a cardboard box under the kitchen sink. Did I say cardboard box? Storing archives of any type in regular cardboard boxes is like feeding your cat unrefrigerated perishable food stored in a cardboard box under the kitchen sink. Both the archive and the cat will die–the cat from food poisoning; and the archive from cardboard acid poisoning.
Wait no longer to preserve your photographs, digital images, electronic documents, storage device contents, paper files, social media posts, email and other web content. Get started before old equipment, computers and storage devices crash and burn before your very eyes.
Here are some steps to get you started archiving:
- Write a file organizational plan
- Establish a schedule for data migration
- Make two to three copies for storage in multiple locations
When you think you have completed migrating files, do not settle comfortably into thinking you are done. Test the copies for accessibility and file integrity. Some of this obsolete file data will not copy in the same manner as new file data. I found that out the hard way and had to repeat most of the work. I had to change my copying technique. I separated files into smaller packages and grouped like-files before copying them as a cluster. For example, instead of copying an entire folder to another device, I found it helpful to open the old file folder to view its contents. Then I created a folder on the destination device and copied groups of files with the same extensions to the destination device.
If my folder contains large Jpeg or TIFF image files, I send them to their destination singly; small Gif images can be migrated successfully in clusters. Audio and video files, depending on the format, especially WAV for audio and AVI for video, are enormous files that may require individual storage devices. Text files are smaller than image, audio or video files; entire folders can be migrated.
If you are working with files designed for 3-D printing, you can expect them to be more massive than other file types. In cases of 3-D files, I would reserve a separate device for each file. Portable storage devices are inexpensive enough to keep in reserve for those occasions. I make a practice of trying to buy matching flash drives for each project. I number each flash drive in the project and create a contents file on drive #1 with a file-by-number list of each drive’s file and folder names. I am purchasing multi-terabyte external hard drives, flash drives and SD cards with enough storage to hold entire project archives.
Like every good operation, building your archive Click here begins with a plan. Boring, my daughter used to say when I asked: what’s the plan, as she asked permission to do something, buy something or go someplace. An insufficient answer to the question leads to an unsuccessful operation or, in my daughter’s case, “No.”
In planning a digital archive, the first part of the problem is to figure out what is possible within my means.
- Do I have the training to do this work myself?
- Can I afford to buy what I need?
- Will I have to contract a consultant?
- Do I have time to devote to a preservation project?
- Will it take the rest of my life?
The second step is to test a small sampling of data and evaluate how to proceed. Sampling helps me prioritize what I think is important enough to preserve. By prioritizing, I will not spend a lot of money and time on activities that will not work or do not contribute to my operation. I can reduce, refine and rethink my process to come up with a template for my preservation plan, which can be as simple as an outline or as sophisticated as a workflow document. Sampling can also help me determine if I am capable of completing the larger task, in which case, I can develop a preservation plan to present to my consultant.
Here are my steps to generate a personal preservation plan.
- Inventory my physical and digital stuff
- Sort my physical stuff into categories
- Sort my digital stuff into files on my computer hard drive
- Decide what I want to preserve
- Digitize my physical stuff using a camera or scanner
- Figure out if I have appropriate equipment to access old data
- Locate professional services for old data access and conversion
- Consider which preservation methods to use for converted files
- Choose appropriate file formats to use for preservation
- Capture and preserve web content
- Archive social media posts
- Protect and preserve emails
- Decide where to store it all
As a published author, I have produced multiple files pertaining to the same piece of work as the work went through its lifecycle, sometimes taking years of editing before completion, if ever completed. What am I going to do with all those paper copies I printed for safety in case my computer hard drive failed? Paper takes up a large allotment of real estate that many people do not have, making it efficient to perform digital preservation.
Having worked in news media and production, I have seen the emergence and disappearance of so many capture and storage devices, both analog and digital, thoughts of them leave my head spinning. As a result, much of my digital footprint ended up in a drawer or a box, never to be examined further. Boxes filled with various media grew into crates, then closets, rooms of paper, the garage and attic. Finally, I had to surrender much of it to the trash; it could no longer be accessed or, in the case of paper, no longer readable. Remember early faxes? I looked at a folder the other day and found old faxes with little to no trace of ink, just specks on thin yellowed paper. I don’t fax anymore or do business with anyone who does. If you have old faxes that would add value to your archive, examine them for readability and scan them. In scanner software, I was able to adjust contrast and saturation on some and save them as Jpeg files. Why fax when you can design a full color business document on our own letterhead with a genuine signature, and attach a package for instant delivery via email.