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Find Your Family - Saving Digital Information

Article Date: 
17 December, 2010 - 06:00

In the world of Family History, documents are increasingly becoming digital.  This is increasingly true every year.  Digital has many advantages over paper.  It is easier to zoom and look at details, it is much easier to access, and the access often comes without a wait.
Many individuals have, over the past ten years, converted to digital cameras for all their picture taking.  I often wonder if our children will have any memories of their childhood given that most photos are digital and it is so easy to lose the digital copies.
The challenge with digital is that digital data is both durable, and incredibly fragile.  It is durable in that as long as the device on which it is stored is functioning then handling the document stored digitally does not harm it.  No matter how many times it is viewed on the screen, even if the fingers accessing it are stained with chocolate or dirt, it will look just the same.
It is fragile because of the impermanence of magnetic material.  The loss of data is only one power surge or hard drive crash away.  If you have never lost data in this way, your time is coming.  No one appreciates backups until the first time they lose data.
Last week, at The Morgan County News we had a computer stop working.  It would not turn on, and the hard drive would not function.  We were close to deadline, and this could have been a disaster.  Although it caused some delay and inconvenience, it was not a disaster.  Why?  Because we use online file storage.
Online file storage is the latest in Internet based service offerings and it has a number of advantages for storing data.  First, it stores a copy in a location other than your computer (most of the time there is also a local copy on your computer).  Second, most services will automatically synchronize files from a personal computer into a secure Internet environment, essentially creating an online copy of the files.  Third, the services will often keep older versions, so if a file is unintentionally deleted or changed it can be recovered.
The online versions are kept secure and are only accessible by those with proper credentials.  If you are using more than one device (a laptop, a desktop, and iPad, and iPhone, etc) then the files can be created, accessed, or modified from any one of the devices.
I have needed to reload my computer once in the last few years and I purchased a new computer about a year ago.  I didn’t have to worry about my data at all.  I simple logged on to the new computer, went through the set up process for the online file storage and voila, all my files were now on the new device.
There are several companies offering this service.  I have been using Mobile me from Apple the longest.  It has a number of advantages for me because it also allows me to synchronize my calendar, contacts, and email across multiple devices.  For the newspaper we use Dropbox.  I like Dropbox better.  It is easier to use and has a very intuitive online interface that allows me to easily see earlier versions of files I have created and easily restore accidentally deleted files.
We have 100 gig of storage on our Dropbox account, although we are only using about 33 gig at present.  I have 40 gig of space on my Mobile me account.  Both of them have been a tremendous edition to my peace of mind and my ability to recover from data loss.  They are also both really good at allowing a group of individuals to share files and keep them synchronized.
Lastly I should also mention one more reason to keep files stored online.  My sister’s house burned down several years ago and she lost all of her personal things.  All her photos were gone.  While it is rare to have a house fire, it does happen.  Having the digital files online make sure that whether your laptop or desktop is stolen, destroyed, or simply stops working that you will be much less likely to lose the precious family information.
I have mostly written about photos, but I keep digital copies of all of the documents I gather in my genealogical research as well.  There are thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in research time associated with my research documents.  I have paper copies of many, but not all of them, but I have much more peace of mind that they are safe when I also have backup online copies.  It also means that I can take the documents with me wherever I am researching.
If you haven’t used online storage it is worth consideration.  If you are not backing your digital items up you should do so.  I guarantee that at some point you will lose digital data.  Once this has happened you will begin having backups.  If you can avoid losing it at all that will be even better.