If you’re like many people, that old photo album tucked away in your closet (or in your attic, basement, etc.) is one of your most valuable possessions. In fact, Allstate’s “It’s Not Just Stuff” survey found that more than half of Americans said keepsakes like videos and photos related to family history are “very important” to them. Nearly two-thirds of respondents plan to pass down keepsakes to future generations, but those family photos and documents may last longer if they are preserved digitally.
Digital preservation, also called personal archiving, is becoming more and more popular, says Russell Martin, a librarian with the District of Columbia Public Library. Creating a personal archive can take a fair amount of work, especially when items range from old film footage to Facebook photos, but he has some tips to help guide you.
At the Memory Lab, a free resource at the D.C. Public Library, Martin helps community members navigate a broad range of software and equipment to create their own archives. Similar services are available at libraries around the country. In addition, you can find tips and tools online: The American Library Association’s Preservation Resources is a good place to start.
Martin says the same basic process outlined here can apply to almost anyone creating a digital archive at home:
1. Make a List
Your archive might consist of a single thumb drive of files or an entire cabinet full of slides and film — it all depends on how much material you’re trying to preserve. Start your process with a list of items intended for preservation, including the location and type of content.
“When your files are in a lot of different places, the list helps you save time,” Martin says.
While you’re going through everything, weed out any items not worth keeping and those you’d like to gift to others.
2. Organize Your Files
Transfer or download files from DVDs, smartphones and social media sites to a common location. Martin suggests storing them on thumb drives or external hard drives, each with a corresponding label or package reflecting the contents.
Whether you have video files or audio files, the Library of Congress recommends that you:
- Tag or title them with names and descriptive subjects.
- Create a directory and folder structure on your computer for selected images.
- Write a brief description of the directory structure and content (this can be a document that explains how to find a file or group of files).
Be sure the names follow a consistent format, for easy navigation in the future. Names with dates and brief descriptors are easier to locate, Martin says, like “Birthday_1999” or “Grand_Canyon_2011.”
3. Use an Appropriate Storage Format
While thumb drives are practical for passing a few files along to relatives, external hard drives typically contain more storage space, Martin says. Avoid storing files solely on CDs, DVDs and other formats that may rely on what may become obsolete technology, he suggests. The ALA recommends backing up your files on multiple types of media.
4. Scan Photos and Paper Items
Scan physical photos or paper documents you want to keep. Scanners are available in local libraries, Martin says, although you may want to consider purchasing one for higher-quality copies, and on-demand availability.
5. Convert Other Formats to Digital
If you have memories stored in older formats, like VHS, you may need special tools to help convert them into digital formats. For instance, a digital converter can connect your VCR to your computer to transfer VHS tapes into digital video files. Many digital video cameras have similar capabilities.
The Library of Congress provides helpful instructions for converting tapes, DVDs and videos that are still on cameras. For in-person assistance, you may want to visit a professional camera retailer or a store with personal technology services.
6. Keep Your Files in Separate Locations
For extra security, you may want to make at least two copies of each item and store them in different locations, the Library of Congress recommends. Once your digital archive is completed, regular upkeep can help ensure that it’s still usable. The Library of Congress suggests checking saved video files at least once a year and creating new media copies periodically to help prevent a data loss.
Finally, keep the originals. They may just turn out to be the longest-lasting format after all, Martin says.