Digital preservation begins at home

A couple of things happened recently to remind me of the fact that I sometimes need to step out of my little bubble of digital preservation expertise.

It is a bubble in which I assume that everyone knows what language I'm speaking, in which everyone knows how important it is to back up your data, knows where their digital assets are stored, how big they might be and even what file formats they hold.

But in order to communicate with donors and depositors I need to move outside that bubble otherwise opportunities may be missed.

A disaster story

Firstly a relative of mine lost their laptop...along with all their digital photographs, documents etc.

I won't tell you who they are or how they lost it for fear of embarrassing them...

It wasn’t backed up...or at least not in a consistent way.

How can this have happened?

I am such a vocal advocate of digital preservation and do try and communicate outside my echo chamber (see for example my blog for International Digital Preservation Day "Save your digital stuff!") but perhaps I should take this message closer to home.

Lesson #1:

Digital preservation advocacy should definitely begin at home

When a back up is not a back up...

In a slightly delayed response to this sad event I resolved to help another family member ensure that their data was 'safe'. I was directed to their computer and a portable hard drive that is used as their back up. They confessed that they didn’t back up their digital photographs very often...and couldn’t remember the last time they had actually done so.

I asked where their files were stored on the computer and they didn’t know (well at least, they couldn’t explain it to me verbally).

They could however show me how they get to them, so from that point I could work it out. Essentially everything was in ‘My Documents’ or ‘My Pictures’.

Lesson #2:

Don’t assume anything. Just because someone uses a computer regularly it doesn’t mean they know where they put things.

Having looked firstly at what was on the computer and then what was on the hard drive it became apparent that the hard drive was not actually a ‘back up’ of the PC at all, but contained copies of data from a previous PC.

Nothing on the current PC was backed up and nothing on the hard drive was backed up.

There were however multiple copies of the same thing on the portable hard drive. I guess some people might consider that a back up of sorts but certainly not a very robust one.

So I spent a bit of time ensuring that there were 2 copies of everything (one on the PC and one on the portable hard drive) and promised to come back and do it again in a few months time.

Lesson #3:

Just because someone says they have 'a back up' it does not mean it actually is a back up.

Talking to donors and depositors

All of this made me re-evaluate my communication with potential donors and depositors.

Not everyone is confident in communicating about digital archives. Not everyone speaks the same language or uses the same words to mean the same thing.

In a recent example of this, someone who was discussing the transfer of a digital archive to the Borthwick talked about a 'database'. I prepared myself to receive a set of related tables of structured data alongside accompanying documentation to describe field names and table relationships, however, as the conversation evolved it became apparent that there was actually no database at all. The term database had simply been used to describe a collection of unstructured documents and images.

I'm taking this as a timely reminder that I should try and leave my assumptions behind me when communicating about digital archives or digital housekeeping practices from this point forth.

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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