Archiving Your Digital Family History Files (#4): Protect Your Digital Archive

This is part five of a five-part blog series about organizing and preserving your digital genealogy files. Read the introduction here, Step #1 here, Step #2 here, and Step #3 here.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to Step #4! You’re almost there! You’ve put so much work into creating your Digital Family History Archive, and now we’re going to protect your Archive from disaster and make sure that it remains accessible and functional for years to come. In this step, we’ll talk about backing up your archive using the rule of 3-2-1 and creating a plan for your archive in the future. This step is easy to forget, but is essential for the survival of your Archive. 

Right now, your Digital Archive is relatively fragile. Even though you’ve selected a reliable place for your Digital Archive, no digital storage medium is 100% safe, nor will it last forever. Think of all the things that could go wrong that could cause you to lose your Archive. Your computer or hard drive could die. A virus or malware could take over your computer. You have a fire, flood, or tornado hit your house and destroy your Archive. Or your computer gets stolen. Or, you simply spill coffee all over your desk and destroy your hard drive. Your online account could be hacked, or you could lose your password. The company that is holding your files could go out of business or discontinue the online service that you’re using. Maybe the media that you’re using goes obsolete, and your next computer can’t access those DVDs or USB devices. Or the storage gets old and doesn’t work right anymore. Or, you pass away unexpectedly, and your family doesn’t know your computer password, or they don’t even know that the Digital Archive exists! There’s so many things that could cause you to lose your Digital Archive, but this step will protect against all these worst-case scenarios so that your Digital Archive survives any disaster, large or small.

Backing up your Digital Archive

As soon as you’ve created your archive, start thinking about how you’re going to protect it. You’ll need to backup your archive. Your back-up Digital Archives are exact copies of your archive to use in case your original Digital Archive is lost or damaged. Like Grandma used to say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” You should use the “Rule of 3-2-1” for backing up your Digital Archive. This commonly-used rule is: Make at least 3 copies of your Digital Archive, on at least 2 different kinds of media, and keep at least 1 copy of your Digital Archive off-site. Let’s break these down.

You’ll need three separate copies of your Digital Archive, and you’ll use at least two different kinds of media, and keep at least one copy in a different place than the others.

3 Independent Copies of your Digital Archive:  There should be at least 3 independent copies of your Digital Archive, including your original, Master Digital Archive. “Independent” means that they are stored separately from each other on different devices or locations. You likely have your Master Digital Archive on your computer or a hard drive accessible from your computer. You’ll need to pick two other places to put two back-up copies.

2 Different kinds of Media:  Put at least one of your extra copies on a different kind of media (i.e. a different kind of device), so that if one kind of media becomes obsolete or otherwise unusable, you’ll have at least one usable copy. (You can go back to Step #2 to review the various kinds of storage media currently available to pick a backup option that works for you.) For example, you may have two external hard drives that contain your Digital Archive, and one copy of your Archive burned to DVD. Or, perhaps you store one copy of your Digital Archive in the Cloud and one copy on an external hard drive, and one copy on your computer. Pick a combination that works for you, but make sure to diversify at least one of your storage choices.

1 Copy off-site:  Let’s say you make three copies of your Digital Archive. One on a hard drive, one burned onto DVDs, and one on your computer. They are all stored in your office in your home. What would happen to all those copies if disaster hit your home (like a tornado, flood, or fire)? All your copies would be gone. It’s a good idea to put at least one copy of your Digital Archive in a location that is physically and geographically located far away from the other two. This will ensure that if a disaster hits your home or your city, this one off-site copy will likely survive. Off-site options include backing up your Archive to an online storage service (like GoogleDrive or DropBox or FamilySearch Memories), which will essentially store your data on their servers off-site, or making a copy on an external hard drive, flash drive, or DVDs and sending it to a family member or trusted friend who lives outside the area, or keeping it in a safety deposit box in a different town. If you are keeping one copy with a family member, be sure to label the hard drive on the outside of the case, and include a copy of your Digital Archive Guide, so anyone who finds it knows what it is and what to do with it.

You should try to store your Master copy and any backup copies of your Digital Archive in optimal conditions to reduce the risk of damage. Keep all copies of your Digital Archive in a cool, dry place and away from high temperatures, dust, dirt, insects, and moisture, and in a place where it won’t easily get bumped, crushed, or lost. If possible, put it in a place that would also be protected from a fire, flood, or earthquake, such as a waterproof fire safe. If one of your copies does get damaged or destroyed, use one of your extra copies of your Archive to replace the lost one. Using this method will greatly increase the survival probability of your Archive.

Create a plan to keep your data safe

I recommend writing down a plan for maintaining your Digital Archive. This plan will include how you’re going to update your backups and sync any new files that you’ve added to your Archive with the backups. This plan will also include your schedule for reviewing your Archive and migrating the files to new storage.

In the second step, we created a guide for your Digital Archive, which should be digitally kept in the top folder of your archive, and travels with your Digital Archive wherever it goes. Within the same document, you should also have a brief Maintenance Plan. Just like a car, your Digital Archive needs regular maintenance to make sure that it remains functional (and accessible!). Your Maintenance Plan will remind you when you need to do particular steps, and will be a guide to anyone who inherits a copy of your Archive. When completed, both your Finding Aid and your Maintenance Plan should be printed out and placed with your physical genealogy files. Take a peek at it every so often to remind yourself when you need to do some Archive Maintenance.

First, your Maintenance Plan should spell out where you physically keep your Master Digital Archive and any backup copies, so that you’ll remember where they are. If any of your copies require a password (such as a cloud service), be sure to write down that information so that it can still be accessed in the unexpected occasion that you lose your password or pass away and someone else needs to access your Digital Archive.

Second, you need to have a general plan for updating and syncing your back-up copies with any new changes to your Digital Archive. Chances are, if you are actively doing anything relating to family history, you’ll be continually adding new files, photos, and documents into your Digital Archive. Don’t forget to update your Digital Archive backup copies, too. Your Maintenance Plan should list specific dates when you should sync any new changes with your back-up copies, and a space for you to indicate when this sync was done. This will help you remember when you last synced your back-up copies, and you hopefully won’t forget to do it! How often you sync new changes with the back-up copies is up to you, and will depend on how often you add new files into your archive. Perhaps you’ll sync the new files to your back-ups immediately, or perhaps you’ll use a software program to help you sync the changes once a month, or if you’ve sent a hard drive to a family member across the country, you’ll sync the new changes on their copy once a year. Whatever you do, make sure that it gets done regularly so that your new changes are not lost if anything happens to your Master Copy.

Third, your plan should include a schedule for reviewing your files to make sure that everything is still working properly. At this point, you may also make sure that you save a new backup copy of your family tree in a GEDCOM format. This review does not need to be an elaborate progress, but it should be done about once a year. Browse through your archive and open a few different kinds of files to make sure that they are still working as expected. Take action to update file formats if needed (i.e. save a copy of the file in a different file format). Technology changes over time; what’s recommended today may not still be best option 10 years from now. Occasionally take time to review the recommended file formats for your various files and make changes as necessary. If you have one copy of your Digital Archive backed up online, it’s also a good idea to log in to your account at least once a year, look through those files to make sure that they are still accessible, and to review your storage subscription (if you are paying for online storage).

Also, your Maintenance Plan should lay out an expiration date for your various media. Although your various storage devices may have a longer lifetime, you should always migrate your Digital Archive and any backups to new media before the very end of its life. Just because something COULD last 30 years doesn’t mean that it will. If you are using your computer, external hard drives, or flash media for your Master Copy or any back-up copies, the Library of Congress recommends moving your digital files to new media every 5 years. I support this recommendation. You can copy your Digital Archive to a new kind of media if you wish, or copy it to a new device that is the same kind of media. For example, you can copy your Archive from your five-year-old external hard drive to a brand new external hard drive, or you can copy your Archive to an online backup service (or both!).

If you are using DVDs to backup your Digital Archive, there are some considerations that you’ll need to contemplate every 5 years or so. Although DVDs last a long time, you cannot add more files to them once you’ve created them. You may wish to make new DVDs every year to reflect any new changes, or if you have no changes or additions to your archive, you can burn new DVDs every 5-7 years. Or, 5 years from now you may decide to transfer your Digital Archive from DVD to hard drive, because your new computer does not have a DVD disc drive anymore.

If you have one copy of your Digital Archive in the cloud, you don’t have to actually move your Archive to new media on a regular schedule, but once a year you should review your current subscription (if you’re paying for storage), and make sure that your account is still active and working properly.

Your maintenance plan should lay out a schedule for making these decisions so that you don’t forget. If you create your Digital Archive in April 2019, you’ll need to check over your Archive every April, and sometime in April 2024, take action to move your Digital Archive and any backups to new devices. Once you’ve migrated your Digital Archive to the new device, you can save your old device as an extra backup if you’d like.

Here’s an example of a short maintenance plan: maintenanceplanexample.jpg

Last but not least, make a plan for the future of your Digital Archive after you’re not able to take care of it anymore. Select one or two family members or close friends that are willing to be caretakers for your genealogy after you pass on. Give them a copy of your Digital Archive, with the printed Finding Aid and Maintenance Plan, and make sure that they understand what they need to do to keep your files safe. If you are struggling to find close family members to care for the Archive, reach out to extended family members and distant cousins who are interested in genealogy. Many historical societies, archives and libraries are usually not eager to take care of your digital files, but it never hurts to ask (especially since your Digital Archive is well organized and comes with a guide!) If cared for properly, your digital archive should last for generations to come.

Wrapping it up

Congratulations! You’re done! … Kind of. You’ve created an organized, accessible Family History Digital Archive for your family! It’s taken a lot of work to get here, but due to the nature of genealogy research and digital files, your work is probably never done. (Just like you’ll never really “finish your family tree!”) You’ll probably be constantly discovering new records, photos, and information about your family, and you’ll constantly be needing to add these files to your archive. As you go forward, don’t forget the steps that got you here:

  1. Find Your Digital “Stuff:” Evaluate any new files to decide whether you need to add them to your archive. If you previously forgot to archive certain files or storage devices, make note of them and plan to go through them.
  2. Organize Your New Digital Archive: Add new folders to your organizational structure as needed, and update your Digital Family History Archive Guide.
  3. Preserve Your Digital Files: Make sure that any new files are in a suitable file format, rename it, and add other metadata to your file if needed. Move any new files into the proper folder in your Digital Archive.
  4. Protect: Follow your Maintenance Plan to keep your Digital Archive protected. Sync any new changes to your Archive with the backup copies, review your Archive and its backup copies every year or so to make sure it’s still accessible, and move your Archive and its backups to new media every 5 years or so.

It’s an ongoing process, but it’s quite rewarding! You’ll always have all your family’s photos, documents, records, and more at your fingertips and safe from harm. Hopefully these steps will help you organize the “invisible” piles of genealogy files on your computer and will help you access the research that you’ve done!

Looking for even more help organizing your digital genealogy files or planning for the future of your Digital Archive? Check out these resources:

  1. Library of Congress’s resources for Personal Digital Preservation: and and
  2. Family Search “Preserving Family History Records Digitally”:
  3. ALA’s Preservation Week resources for Digital Archiving:
  4. Helpful comparisons of the cloud services GoogleDrive, DropBox, and OneDrive:
  5. Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Handbook for more technical guidance:
  6. Planning a Future for Your Family’s Past, book by Marian Burk Wood. (Request from your local library, or visit her website for the link to the book on Amazon!)

Archiving Your Digital Genealogy Files


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