October 10th is officially electronic records day!
Electronic records are things we make all the time – our emails, our texts, our computer files, our banking transactions, our digital photos, and so on. You’ve probably generated a variety of electronic records today alone. On an average day I make a bunch of emails, a text or two, possibly a digital photograph, and lots of general office computer files (word-processed documents, spreadsheets, charts, etc.). Social media posts count too!
So, what is Electronic Records Day all about? It’s a day sponsored by the Council of State Archivists to raise awareness about digital records and the crucial need to preserve them. With paper materials (or photographs) you can file them away. Provided they don’t get water, heat, insect, or fire damage they’re likely to last quite a long time. With digital materials you might lose access to them immediately (file corruption), several years from now, or a decade or two from now. Archivists have to work quickly and relatively frequently to make sure digital materials are saved.
Managing electronic records is like caring for a perpetual toddler: they need regular attention and care in order to remain accessible. – Council of State Archivists, “10 Reasons Why Electronic Records Need Special Attention” (2014).
Digital Decay and Obsolescence
Computing technologies change much faster than photograph and paper forms. The University of Klagenfurt in Austria has prepared a timeline showing the history of information storage. Things didn’t change very rapidly at all until the 1960s! If you’d prefer a more visual timeline, Dell has created an infographic of data storage history.
There is a Flickr pool where you can see what digital decay (also called “bit rot”) looks like: The Atlas of Digital Damages. You may have already noticed this with some of your files. I know that I have, unfortunately.
Personal Digital Recordkeeping
You can be a “citizen archivist” and take care of your own digital files. Here’s a video from the Library of Congress explaining why digital preservation is important and how to get started in preserving your own materials:
Digital preservation at home takes the following basic steps:
- Identify (figure out what you’ve got and in what format)
- Decide (how much do you want to keep?)
- Organize (make sure everything you’re keeping is named, described, and organized on your computer)
- Backup (make copies and store them in more than one place)
- Check (at least once a year try to make sure you can still access the files)
- Migrate (move files to the newest version of the software as it becomes available)
The Council of State Archivists has prepared a tip sheet to help people preserve their own digital records. It includes some of the same information in the video, but also gives suggestions on specific file formats: Survival Strategies for Personal Digital Records (pdf)
While they may seem commonplace now, electronic records will form the backbone of the historical record for researchers of the future. – Council of State Archivists, “10 Reasons Why Electronic Records Need Special Attention” (2014).
Records, now frequently in digital form, will be a large part of what the future knows about us. If we’d like to ensure that our own future (grandkids, friends, ourselves in 20 years, etc.) has access to our personal records, we need to take steps now. The six steps above are a great basic level of preservation using tools you may already have or can get easily. If you don’t have access to newer software (step 6) or won’t be able to keep up with a regular checking schedule (step 5), then doing steps 1 – 4 will still be very helpful in making sure that your most important records remain accessible.