Working with Digital Materials

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Think of the documents stored on your computer: milestones relating to your career, photographs of your kids, and even a long email from a beloved family member. More and more people have materials on their computer, hard drive, or email that hold important personal meaning and tell significant stories about their lives.

These materials can include already-digital (sometimes called “born digital”) or digitized photographs, documents, videos and audio recordings. Digital materials are fragile, and require special care to keep them accessible in the future. New technologies, the obsolescence of old formats, and the failure of computers and hard drives can make it difficult to access older content.

This guide will help you decide how to prioritize your digital files for preservation, how to safeguard and store your files, and how to digitize analog or paper items.

1. Identify Materials

  • Identify all the places where photos, documents, video and audio are located
  • Check for materials on computers, cameras, phones, flash drives, CDs, DVDs and on the internet.

2. Prioritize and Assess

  • Identify your priorities and figure out where they are currently stored.
  • If you don’t use it, and it has no further value, move along. If you’re lacking the right software to open a file, determine if it’s useful to keep and to try to open later.
  • Create a transfer list that prioritizes your most important files and data
  • If there are multiple versions of a file, keep the one with the highest quality
  • Beware of personal information such as financial records and Social Security Numbers!
  • Are these the only copies of these files? Are there other versions/copies stored elsewhere? Is it being well-preserved by someone else in your family, and you’d just be keeping an additional copy for yourself?
  • Is the material unique to you, or is it a published work (think, Beatles songs)?

3. Import Materials

  • Import materials that are not already on your computer
  • Choose the highest quality version, and import an exact copy

4. Organize

  • Give files and folders descriptive names, including keywords and dates (yyyymmdd)
  • Choose an organization system that makes sense to you, and be consistent. For example, you could make folders by year and month, or by event such as a wedding or celebration.

5. Storage & Backup

  • Follow the 3-2-1 rule: create 3 copies, on 2 different types of storage, with 1 in a remote location. A good rule of thumb is to keep one copy on your computer, one copy on an external hard drive (perhaps stored at a relative’s house), and one copy on cloud storage such as DropBox or Google Drive, where you can upload some of your materials for free. There is a limit on how much material you can put up for free on cloud services (normally 10-15 GB).
  • If possible, store copies in different physical locations
  • Make new copies every five years (due to obsolescence of technology)
  • Files such as videos or photographs can take a long time to copy to a hard drive or to a cloud service. Do these first, and use their uploading time to go through other folders of materials and prepare them for transfer.

6. Long-term Preservation

Engage your family and friends in the project and discuss whether you would like to donating your material to your local public library, college or historical society at some point in the future, or if an interested family member would plan to take over your home archive.

7. Digitizing Your Non-Digital Photos and Documents

You may have physical photos and documents that you want to share with your friends and family. With a computer and scanner you can digitize these materials at home or at your local public library. Here are some quick tips for getting a good digital copy of your material:

  • Make sure that the scanner is free of any dust or lint
  • DPI (Dots Per Inch) affects the image quality. A higher DPI creates a more detailed image. Recommended settings are:
    • Photographs and documents: 300 DPI
    • Photographs and documents that you plan to to enlarge and print: 600 DPI
    • Photographic slides and negatives: 1,800 DPI
  • Save the files as TIFF or high-quality JPEG
  • Give your digital file a meaningful name, and create a backup.

Some text adapted with permission from the “Digital Preservation” brochure by the Queens Memory Project by Queens Library and Queens College, CUNY.