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Digital Preservation

Digital Preservation Basics

These principles will help guide you towards storing your data in the most sustainable way.

Pay attention to file formats
Ideally, you will want to use what is called an open file format. Open file formats have either been created by a public organization (such as JPEG) or by a corporation that has later published the specifications of the format (such as PDF). If the specification of the format is publicly known, new software can be written to open files in that format. This means you will not be dependent on one software company for access to your files down the road.

Use thoughtful, consistent file names
Descriptive file names make it much easier to identify and manage files. Try to keep file names relatively short but still meaningful. Use underscores rather than spaces and don’t use special characters.

3-2-1 Storage
The gold standard in digital preservation is the 3-2-1 storage rule: 3 different copies of your data, on at least two different kinds of storage, with at least 1 in a different geographical location. For example, this could be one copy on your computer hard drive, one on an external tape drive, and one in cloud storage. However, this approach is expensive, requires upkeep (updating the two secondary storage locations every time a file changes), and has environmental impact. Consider implementing a 3-2-1 strategy only for your most important data and backing up your other files in a simpler way.

Check your data periodically
Bit rot is when data at rest corrupts. It’s not super common, but it does happen. Physical storage media like hard drives can also wear out and fail. Digital preservation professionals use fixity-checking software for this purpose. For personal use, you may just want to spot-check. Every so often, try to access a random sample of content. If you find any errors, investigate whether the hardware has failed. If so, replace; if not, restore the file from one of your other copies.

Refresh your storage
Every few years, assess your storage situation and decide whether you need to migrate content. Are you storing things on a hard drive with a USB plug, but eyeing one of those new Macs with no USB ports? Are you using Vassar’s Google storage but will be graduating soon? It may be time to consider migrating your content to a new storage location, or taking other steps to keep your data accessible.

Be selective
As you can see, digital preservation is a lot of work! It’s best to be selective about what really needs to be preserved indefinitely and to revisit those decisions regularly.

For more information on digital preservation issues, visit the Digital Preservation Coalition.