Personal Digital Archiving Revisited

In anticipation of World Digital Preservation Day (November 29), now seems like a good time to revisit my unfinished blog series on Personal Digital Archiving. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll wrap it up with posts on digital storage options and an annotated list of PDA resources. But first, it’s been a while since I started this series, so let’s go back and take another look at the first two parts, Preservation Planning and Media Types and File Formats. The following is a quick summary of some of the important points covered in more detail by those earlier posts.

Let’s say you’re interested in preserving your digital files. You’re already aware of the risks inherent in keeping digital files over the long term (computer crashes, files that won't open due to changes in software, etc). You’re ready to take steps to back up your stuff and keep it accessible into the future. Where do you begin? What do you need to know? Here are some tips to help guide you as you make a preservation plan:

Identify and Select:

What are you seeking to save? Are you interested in keeping everything, or just sets of important files? Make a list of everything you hope to keep over time. If all of your electronic devices failed tomorrow, what content would you be most sorry to lose?

Locate and Gather:

Where are your digital files? Most of it is likely to be on a laptop or desktop computer, but think of all the other devices and online spaces that may have photos, messages, or other content you may want to keep: phone, email, work computer, social media, etc. To make it easy to back this stuff up, it needs to be all in one place. Download or copy anything you’ve identified as important to one central computer.


Even when you have all your digital content on your computer, is it easy to find specific files and know what they are? The best way to keep files organized is to give them short, meaningful names that provide context and make the files easy to skim at a glance. It’s always best to do this as you create the files, since that’s when you have the best information about what you’ve created or saved. Remember to keep your naming system consistent!

Back Up:

When you’ve got the files you want to preserve all in one place, follow the 3-2-1 Rule:

            Make 3 copies of your digital collection. If your computer counts as one copy, you need at least two additional copies. I’ll write more about digital storage options in part 3 of this series.

            2 copies should be on different types of storage media. In case one type of storage media fails, it’s a good idea to have other copies on different media. (For example: computer hard drive [1], external hard drive [2], cloud service [3].)

            Store 1 copy in a different location. If a disaster strikes your home, you’ll want to have a back up stored somewhere else. The best option is a different geographic location, such as a parent’s house in another state.


Preservation of digital materials is an active endeavor. You can’t just stick your digital storage media away somewhere and forget about it, you have to check it over time. In addition to spot-checking the copies on your storage devices annually to make sure the files still open, you’ll need to copy the files onto new storage media every 5–7 years. Ensuring that your files remain accessible and the storage media still works is a continuous cycle. Don’t wait 10 years to find out that your storage drives have failed.

With the review out of the way, we’re ready to move on tomorrow to Part 3: Digital Storage Options. And get ready for the Digital Preservation Unit’s Pop-Up Digital Archiving Clinic for World Digital Preservation Day on November 29, 2018. More info on that event in future posts.