How to Keep Your Digital Memories Safe
“Google is a library or an archive like a supermarket is a food museum.”
— Jason Scott, digital archivist
Do you value your digital stuff? Nearly everyone is creating things with computers, and some do it
without any concern for its value. Others recognise its current value, but think little about what it could
mean to them in the future, and either aren't aware or don't think that all of it could be destroyed
tomorrow. But hard drives die all the time, and the online services into which people sink their time
close with alarming regularity, taking the work of millions of people with it. Here's how to preserve your
Make a quick backup now. If nothing else, get a cheap USB stick and drag-and-drop your documents
folder onto it. Worry about the other things later. You should do more than this, but it's most important
to take the most valuable, irreplaceable information from your hard drive and put it on a second
medium to guard against hard drive failure, theft or loss.Stop reading until you have done this and stop
making excuses to not do it. Getting your most important stuff onto a cheap USB stick is a lot better
than having no backups at all. Do it right now.
Decide what you value. Some questions to ask you are:
Would you care if this was deleted tomorrow? For things like business accounts and documents, the
answer is of course you would. This kind of thing should be your first priority. This could happen to you
today. Back up your important stuff right now.
Would you care if you had no record of this in ten years' time? Alternatively, if you're old enough to
remember what happened a decade ago, What happened a decade ago that you wish you had a record
of today? Your picture of your cat might not matter too much now, but you would probably think
differently after your cat passed away. Your cat snapshots might not matter to you now, but what about
in a decade's time?
How replaceable is this data? MP3s and movies you have downloaded are generally replaceable (even if
it's a pain to do so), so it's not the end of the world if they get lost. Documents you have written or
photos you have taken cannot easily be re-created. It's more important to back up some things than
How good are you at assessing the value of items? As human beings, our choice of things to back up will
be fallible and probably short-sighted. Err on the side of backing up too much stuff; disk space is cheap
and 23 cubic inches holds a fantastic amount of data. The shelves in the background of this photograph,
taken at the offices of The New York World in 1909, are crammed with photographic negatives. These
were all thrown away when the newspaper folded. Sometimes our judgement on what is worth saving
and what is not is short-sighted. If these were digital photographs, they'd probably fit on a single 3.5"
Beware of sinking time, and data, into online services. This isn't to say that you must never post a
picture on Face book or say anything on Twitter; these things are fun. But remember that no online
service should be considered an archive or a permanent home. Sometimes these services go down.
Other times, your account there might be suspended or your data lost by accident. A tribute to the
deceased web host Geocities, made with thousands of screenshots taken a few weeks before the service
Never sink time into any service that doesn't give you an easy way to get your data out again. If it
doesn't allow you to download all of your stuff as either a ZIP file or with some automated tools via an
API, it's probably a bad idea to use it.
Keep a current email address for any services you use in case the service goes down. If they give you any
notice, it will likely be via email.
Keep local copies of everything. Don't delete your local copies after you've put something online unless
you are totally, 100 percent sure that you will never want to see it again.
Watch out for signs of impending doom, either for your data or for the service as a whole. These are
some of the signs that you should consider moving your data somewhere else and be doubly vigilant of
having local copies of your work:
Unclear or unsustainable business model. Have fun with these services, but as with any service, don't
count on it being around next year.
Losing data or extended periods of downtime should make you consider whether you want to continue
being there at all. Fotopic was a fine example of this; after suffering several periods of downtime, at
least one of them extended, people continued to put their photos on the site before it was shut down,
with no notice, in 2011.
Reports of deletion of accounts by staff of the site. One does not even need to discuss whether they
might actually have a good reason for doing so to note that this happens rather a lot to people who are
not expecting it on many of today's social networking sites.
A buy-out of the service by another company that has no clear plans for its future. In particular, beware
of talent acquisitions which might leave the service orphaned; the 2012 acquisition of Posterous by
Twitter is a great example of this, if you're good at reading between the lines.
Start making backups. Remember, something is better than nothing. Diminishing returns apply in
backups as they do with everything else. The cheapest and simplest backup methods take care of an
overwhelming majority of likely loss-of-stuff. Over-complicating your backup strategy is the biggest trap:
the more complicated and expensive you insist on making it, the less likely you are to do it.Thus, while
they have good intentions when they're not showing everyone else how awesome they are, people who
tell you that you absolutely must go all-out with geographic redundancy probably do more harm than
good to the extent that such things are necessary if you're going to have backups at all.
First level: Buy a cheap USB flash drive and shove your documents folder onto it. You already did this in
the first step; do it right now if you have not. This saves your most important data from the medium
most likely to fail or be stolen.
Second level: Once you have figured out what you value, buy a USB external hard drive and start copying
more of your data onto that. Get into the habit of doing this at least every week. You'll have more space
to play with, so you can copy the more replaceable stuff like your music collection onto it. You will also
want to look into ways to download data from your online accounts (for example, backing up your blog,
or using Facebook's export-to-a-big-ZIP-file feature) so you can back that up, too. An external hard drive
like this is cheap and can hold enormous amounts of your stuff.
Third level: Consider some automated backup strategy. This is worth it if you care to do it, but takes
more time to set up well; a poorly-designed one will result in more of your data getting lost than a
simple regular manual backup if it doesn't alert you to failures of the media to which you are backing up.
Fourth level: Geographic redundancy, for stuff that you absolutely cannot lose. This takes care of, say,
your house burning down. The diminishing returns are in action; this is a whole lot less likely than a hard
drive dying, and of course if your house is destroyed, you're likely to be a lot more worried about finding
somewhere to live and starting over again than you are about your cat photographs.
Use online backup services carefully. They have their place, particularly in the case of possible
geographic redundancy, but never depend on them as your only backup source. Once again never delete
your local copies of anything, and never use a service that does not provide you an easy way of getting
your data out. Because of their widespread use for illegal purposes, "file locker" services are an
especially bad place to house your data as they can disappear literally overnight. Megaupload was an
online file locker closed down with no notice by the government of the United States. It is believed that
it may have had millions of people using it for legitimate purposes.
Don't forget your mobile devices. For many people, they have supplanted or replaced conventional
computers. Back up your photographs and video from your camera phone.
Consider licensing your work under a Creative Commons license, or otherwise providing an easily-
downloadable copy for other people to archive. If your stuff is interesting enough, allowing other people
to make copies will result in lots of copies of your stuff being out there.Many places will accept copies of
Creative Commons-licensed content; Wikimedia Commons will accept any media you have created
yourself if it's vaguely educational, for example. The Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/ will
also accept collections of digital artifacts. Consider contributing to these or another similar non-profit
Keep an eye on your storage media. If one of your backup drives fails, replace it immediately. "The
universe tends towards maximum irony; don't push it." In the longer term, you'll want to move your
data off various kinds of storage media as obsolescence sets in and move it onto newer ones once the
newer technologies mature. Floppy disks went to the glue factory a decade ago, for example, and are
quickly becoming unreadable. Writable CDs and DVDs are headed down this path; if you have data
backed up on any of these, now is probably the right time to get it onto hard drives or solid-state media.
The CD-RW is quickly going the way as the floppy disk, and USB will be gone one day, too. Move your
stuff onto newer media as the newer media matures.
Consider how much of the digital record of you is other people's data, and consider preserving some of
that. An old example of this would be your bookmarks; at the very least, keep a backup of your
bookmarks file. In the Facebook era, many of your digital memories will have been made by other
people; for example, photos in which you have been tagged, or tweets mentioning you. In many
jurisdictions it is legal to make personal copies of other peoples' stuff provided that it is strictly for
Remember that your backups are only useful insofar as you have software to read it. Many people who
used computers in the 1980s and 1990s have already experienced the pain of finding that today's
software is unable to read their documents. Will you still be able to read your files in the future?
Beware of software that forces you to keep using it. An example would be a photo manager that wants
to import your photo library but doesn't document how your files are stored or how to get them out
again. Another example (fortunately uncommon these days) would be music download services that
allow you to purchase tracks but use copy protection with the explicit aim of stopping you from making
copies. This especially applies to backup software; if no other program can read whatever format in
which it stores your files it's useless as a long-term solution.
Beware of proprietary or weird file formats. This is the more general case of the above: Some vendors
do not document their file formats precisely because they don't want you to be able to read your own
stuff with anyone else's software. If your software permits it, export a copy of your work to some open
file format. If your software does not allow you to do this, panic and start using an open-source
Stick to file formats that can be read by open-source software today. Open source software tends to
stick around longer than closed-source software does, so even if you're using proprietary software you'll
be able to open it in open source software long after the vendor of your software stops supporting it.
If you have a website, avoid using robots.txt. In particular, make sure that any host you use is not using
robots.txt or a similar technical measure either; it could result in your site not being archived by
archiving services like the Internet Archive.An awful example of the latter would be Fotopic, which had a
broken robots.txt configuration, meaning that when it closed with no notice the Internet Archive had no
public copies of any of the hundreds of thousands of photos there, copies which could have been used
by its former members to rebuild their collections.
If you have a hosted website, consider buying your own domain name if the service allows custom
domains. In the event of the service closing it's technically fairly straightforward to host the content
Things You'll Need
USB external hard drives and other backup resources––the simpler, the better so that you actually use it
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