Preserving Documents Digitally

What do the following headlines from past issues of this newsletter have in common?

Hancock County, Georgia, Courthouse Burned (August 12, 2014)

Van Buren County, Tennessee Offices Destroyed by Fire, Birth, Marriage, Death, and Many Other Records Lost (January 9, 2015)

Fire in Major Russian Library Destroys One Million Historic Documents (February 1, 2015)

Home of the Marissa (Illinois) Historical and Genealogical Society Destroyed by Fire (January 31, 2015)

Roof Collapses at Iowa Genealogical Society Library (December 31, 2009)

Fire Destroys Much of Indiana Historical Collection (December 30, 2009)

Cologne [Germany] Archives Building Collapses; 3 Missing, Many Escape (March 03, 2009)

Archives Damaged in Italian Earthquake (April 07, 2009)

Louisville Library Regains Use of Genealogy Room After Flash Floods (September 11, 2009)

Help Save the Archives of Ontario [from mold that is destroying records] (February 18, 2005)

Genealogy Lost in Twister (November 18, 2002)

North Dakota Records Lost [in the great flood of 1997] (April 28, 1997)

New Jersey Historical Documents and Artifacts Damaged in Flood (April 24, 2007)

Jefferson Davis’ Biloxi Home Beauvoir [and Records] Reported “Demolished” by Hurricane Katrina (August 31, 2005)

Library Rescues Genealogy Books [after a tornado] (June 2, 2003)

Resident Rescues Genealogy Papers from Wildfire (June 06, 2006)

Do you see a pattern here? We cannot plan on having access to original documents forever. In fact, many valuable documents will disappear in the future due to disasters over which we have no control.

Many people believe that scanning old documents and making digital images is not good for archival purposes. They argue that digital images don’t last long and that “the required equipment to view the images won’t be available in twenty-five years.”

However, most archivists will say that the truth is exactly the opposite: by use of some very simple data maintenance methods (already used by governments, corporations, and non-profits all over the world), digital images can often last for centuries, much longer than the physical paper documents.

I will suggest that the discussion of records preservation needs to consider ALL possibilities. In this case, we have seen many instances where paper records were destroyed by Mother Nature, despite the best efforts of archivists and preservationists.

I will also suggest that there is no perfect method of guaranteeing that records will be available to future genealogists and historians. However, we certainly can improve the odds by performing all of the following:

1. Do whatever it takes to preserve original (physical) records. This means not only keeping the documents themselves safe from mold, mildew, insects, and other problems, but also housing the records in buildings that are as fireproof and flood-proof and earthquake-proof as possible.

2. Recognize the fact that preservation of documents by traditional means is never perfect. Some number of paper documents will be destroyed, whether by simply degradation of the paper or by natural disasters, such as fire, floods, and earthquakes. In short, we cannot depend on having a single copy of anything. We must have duplicate copies, which these days means digital images.

3. Having one duplicate is not enough. We need to make multiple duplicates and store them in different locations so that no one hurricane or flood or fire or other disaster will destroy all the copies. Luckily, with digital images, it is easy to store duplicate copies in several different locations.

4. We cannot allow the digital images to become obsolete. As technology changes, the digital backups need to be copied often to new storage media. Just because a floppy disk or a CD-ROM disk suffices today does not mean that it will be a viable storage media in a few years. If the document is important to someone, it needs to be copied to new storage media every few years.

Planning and preservation efforts apply equally to both large government archives and your personal genealogy records stored at home. With a bit of advance planning, we can ensure that valuable records are available to everyone in the future.

7 Comments

Good article, Dick. My son lost everything in a condo fire last December and I’m here in BC watching people having to leave with very little, or at times no notice at all with all the forest fires burning here. I notice we’re not the only ones with fire on the horizon or closer – it seems to be almost a word wide disaster right now – forests, buildings, towns and so much heartache.
I’ve always had major information in at least three places – home, local and with a daughter who is much further away. However, I’m right now putting the important stuff – Family, Family History, Photographs and Emergency Information – onto Flash drives. Easier to put in a purse in a hurry, but I also am keeping one backup in a fire safe and sending another to the daughter. Any time my condo has a fire alarm, I put the backup drives into my purse and hope I don’t need them. Never have so far. I also backup the desktop to the laptop and that would also go with me if I had time to gather anything.
I’m not in a fire zone, but it is so dry and the mountains so near that it just seems right to take more precautions today!
Hope anyone seeing this is safe and has no emergencies to worry about.

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You didn’t mention online backups, and other online sources like Drop Box. Do you have privacy concerns about backing up to “the cloud”?

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    —> Do you have privacy concerns about backing up to “the cloud”?

    You can read the many articles I have written about backups by starting at: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=site%3Aeogn.com+backups&t=hq&ia=web

    You will note that many of those articles strongly recommend backing up to file storage services in the cloud. MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, and dozens of other genealogy web sites now back up to the cloud as do thousands of other corporations, non-profits, many government agencies, many U.S. military organizations, and millions of private individuals. (Ancestry.com now runs EVERYTHING in the cloud, including all their servers. Everything at Ancestry.com is cloud-based. See my earlier article at https://blog.eogn.com/2017/06/08/ancestry-com-migrates-its-entire-server-infrastructure-to-the-cloud/ for the details.)

    Encrypted file storage services in the cloud have proven to be more safe and much more secure than backups you keep at home or the office where they can be accessed remotely by hackers or stolen by burglars or destroyed by a fire, flood, burst water pipe, or other disaster.

    For instance, my computers make constant online backups to TWO different online backup services in the cloud (never put all your eggs in one basket!) PLUS making additional backups to an ENCRYPTED portable hard drive that sits beside my computer and is plugged into a USB port on the back of the computer.

    Everyone needs backups. I strongly recommend you never rely on only one backup and also never rely on backups that are all stored in the same location as your computer. If you keep your only backup in the same location as your computer, fires, floods, or other disasters will destroy BOTH the computer and the only backup at the same time.

    I strongly recommend you back up your important files to some device in your home (where it is quick and easy to restore something, if needed), PLUS keep backups at two or more other locations. All backups should be encrypted so that no one else can read them… not a thief, not a hacker, not the employees of the cloud storage service, and not your shady brother-in-law. Luckily, almost all cloud file storage services offer encryption these days. In almost all cases, the files are encrypted BEFORE they are sent across the Internet to the file storage service. If your favorite cloud-based file storage service doesn’t offer encryption, it is easy to add encryption yourself in your own computer. (However, I would probably switch to a different service.)

    Encryption keeps things secret for thousands of banks, stock brokers, the Federal Reserve System, for the military services of all countries, for the FBI, for other law enforcement agencies, for the IRS, and for millions of individuals like you and me. If you have anything you wish to keep private, the answer is simple: encrypt it. Encryption works.

    By the way, I spent four years in the U.S. military as a crypto technician. I trust encryption, as does the Pentagon.

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I was in that beautiful Hancock County, GA courthouse about 20 years ago . I had ancestors in that area back in the late 1790-early 1800 time period. I didn’t know enough about the family to do any research at that time. I always thought that I would get back there someday. Well, someday never arrived and now it is too late.

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The Library of Congress continuously is updating records to newer technology. Digital is a lot easier to update and distribute to other locations.

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I have taken digital pictures of all the paper documents of our church. I was prompted to do this when another church in town burned and lost all their history and another church had a flood and also lost their historical documents. Anyone with a digital camera or phone can do it. The larger part of the job is the organizing of the images into the appropriate folders and I’m still working on that!! But the images are made and on multiple places including the cloud. Surely preserving your organization’s history is worth the time it takes and it doesn’t cost a dime–just the time.

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I agree that it would be great to have everything digitized and stored in multiple places, and I do have multiple backups of my computer files, including in the Cloud. However, too many genealogists whine, “Why don’t they just digitized everything and put it online?” The “why” is money: money to pay personnel to do the digitizing, to buy servers to store the digital files, software to make the records available on the Internet, etc. Digitizing can be outsourced, but that costs money, too. Too many of our record repositories are struggling as it is, and can’t find the money for this. There are grants available from various sources, but not enough.

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