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Electronic Records Day: October 10, 2015

September 29, 2015

October 10th is designated Electronic Records Day by the Council of State Archivists. In recognition, we thought it would be a good time to share some basic tips for managing your own personal digital records.


Computer terminal in the UTSA library, 1980. Office of University Communications Photographs, UA 16.01.01, UTSA Special Collections.

Your cell phone has a software meltdown one night and needs to be restored to factory settings. Your computer will no longer recognize your external hard drive. You accidentally deleted your entire email inbox.

Do any of these situations sound familiar? By now, you’ve probably experienced the reality of losing some of your personal digital archives. As more and more of our daily activities integrate digital technology, more and more of our stuff rests in a precarious position. While not all failures can be prevented, there are steps you can take to help ensure that the next time your phone gets dropped in the pool, your electronic data can be recovered.

Get a handle on what electronic records you have. These records may reside on your personal computer, on your phone, on removable media (like a flash drive), in the cloud (like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud), or in your social media profiles.

This xkcd comic gives good examples of some disparate sources of personal digital files.

Focus on your most important files, the ones that would be catastrophic to lose, like drafts of your major research paper, photographs and videos from Spring Break, text messages from your best friend, or design files from your studio art class.

Use good file names and organized file directory structures. Will your future self have any idea what “finaldraft.doc” refers to? Something like “AirAmerDream_20151202.doc“ might work better, as it includes a brief description of the contents of the document (a research paper about how Airstream trailers exemplify the idea of the American Dream) and the date of the paper. These videos from the State Library of North Carolina offer additional details about good file naming practices.

In a similar way, give some thought to how you can structure a hierarchy of directories on your computer into which you can sort your files as you create them. Maybe in your documents folder, it makes sense to have a sub-folder for each semester, then below that, a sub-sub-folder for each course. Implement a structure that makes sense and is easy for you to actually use. Anything that helps label materials in your digital archive in a way that doesn’t rely only on your memory is a good step forward.

Make backups of your files. Best practices suggest having multiple copies on multiple devices. In the information science world, we implement the LOCKSS strategy: Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. This could simply mean having your laptop backed up to a portable, external hard drive, and keeping another copy in the cloud. The ideal setup would involve keeping the physical copies in separate geographic locations and would also include regular, automated backups. Take the extra few minutes to set up and use your computer’s automatic backup software, instead of just ignoring the prompts when it reminds you. Since you already have your well-named files in tidy directories, it should be simple to find what you are looking for when you need to retrieve something from the backed-up files. It is also a good idea to keep backups of your cell phone, so that if your phone does a disappearing act, you still have access to your contacts, photos, and other information.

Different types of records require different types of backup, transfer, and management. Photos, text/SMS messages, email, social media feeds, and research data all necessitate specific methods for preservation.

The National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s Digital Preservation in a Box includes suggestions for digital preservation, separated by format.

The Library of Congress has helpful guides on How to Preserve Your Own Digital Materials.

The Council of State Archivists put together a document called Survival Strategies for Personal Digital Records.

Research data can have its own peculiar preservation needs. In addition to the tips linked above, UTSA Libraries has compiled some resources to help guide you.

Remember that management of your electronic records is an ongoing task. Physical storage media, such as disks and hard drives, have a limited life span and will need to be replaced periodically. Updates in software may necessitate migrating your files into different file formats. A proactive, organized approach to personal digital archiving will help you keep your electronic records on solid ground.

*Any ideas why 1010 was chosen as the date to celebrate electronic records?

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 29, 2015 8:08 am

    Reblogged this on stillness of heart and commented:
    Great advice

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