As part of our celebration here for American Archives Month, I thought a few tips on how you can be the best archivist of your own digital archives might be helpful. We all create documents, photographs, and other digital content every day at an ever increasing rate. This is our personal archives and while we used to print all this out and store it in file cabinets and boxes under the bed, today we store it on our phones and computers. So, a little maintenance and good digital archiving practice in your daily life can go a long way to making your life, and potentially your future archivist’s life, a lot easier.
Where are your digital archives?
The first step is actually figuring out where all your digital files are: On your phone, on your computer, on that iPad you haven’t turned on since 2020 or the photo website you haven’t logged into since 2015. This step may be the hardest; we’ve all had a long digital life by this point and our photos and documents may be scattered over LOTS of devices and storage services. Start by collecting all the digital hardware in your house: all the devices, hard drives, CDs and (gasp!) other disks that might have data you want to collect and start to organize. Also, make a list of any websites you think you might have saved files on at some point so you check them out as part of this process. As part of this step, you may find some digital files have been lost to time – either the device will no longer fire up or the website is long gone. Sadly, that is a reality with digital archives. They have a much shorter shelf life than the photo you printed out and stuck in an album somewhere in your house.
Decide What You’re Keeping
Spoiler alert – you don’t need to keep it all! In fact, I would encourage you not to. For starters, you don’t need 10 photographs of the same tree taken in quick succession six years ago (do you even remember why you took the photos to begin with?). You also mostly likely do not need 5 drafts of that term paper you wrote for that professor you loathed. Deleting files is a good thing! It makes room for you to keep the digital files that are important to you and also makes it a lot easier to find the files you need when you don’t have to search through thousands of photos to find the one you really want. Have a little appraisal policy for yourself – I’m keeping every photograph of my dog (no matter what) but can discard most of the photos of food I have taken over the years. I’m keeping all my final drafts of my college papers but discarding all drafts and minor assignments. As we say these days, KonMari those files!
Organize the Keepers
Once you have selected all the files you are keeping, take a moment. That was a lot of work! Hopefully, you’ve now collected, in a single place, all the files that are important to you to be able to access 10, 20, 50 years down the road. Now comes the really fun part, we organize them! I am a digital archivist after all; the only thing I love more than deleting files is organizing them to keep. First step, organize your files into directories or folders. You might do this by type (all photos in one folder, all documents in another) and then continue to sort into years or events. NEVER use spaces in your directory or file names. Computers don’t like them and they can cause issues down the road. So, name your folders things like “Walt-Disney-World-2002”. Once you have your files sorted into directories, you can start renaming the individual files as well. You want these to be descriptive names like “Ally-with-Tigger-at-MK” rather than “Photo-001” for two reasons. One, again, it is easier to find a photo by searching if it has a useful name and two, if you do sort photos into multiple directories, you may end up with multiple Photo-001 files and that…is not good for anyone in the long term. What if those photos got moved, confused or one deleted because you didn’t realize they were different images? Lastly, make yourself a key for your organizational structure in a text file so those who inherit your files some day know why you have a folder titled “Figment-Trouble-2021”
Copy, Store and Done!(?)
In the digital archives world, we have the acronym, LOCKSS – Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. While in your personal digital archives, you don’t need a lot of copies, it is a good idea to have at least two copies of your digital archives stored in two different locations. This can be on your phone and in a cloud service like iCloud or Google Drive. Or it can be your laptop and an external hard drive you store elsewhere. What you are trying to make sure of is if disaster strikes one storage space, all your files are still safe in your other storage location. Cloud storage services are great for this and are reasonably priced for most personal digital archives. Once you’ve got everything stored as you’d like, you’re done! Sort of. The thing about digital archives is they do take some maintenance. You want to check in with everything at least once a year; do another clean-out, make sure your file naming is still on point and that you have all files stored as you wish in your multiple locations. It takes work but it’s worth it to know your files are safe and accessible for you today and down the road. And, bonus, your future archivist thanks you!
There are lots of great resources out there around personal digital archiving or if you’re interested in digitizing your physical materials to create digital copies. I recommend starting at the Library of Congress’s Personal Archiving website to get started!