Preserving Your Digital Legacy: Backing Up Your Data

This post might sound like a pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment, like urg­ing you to eat enough fruits and veg­eta­bles, but devel­op­ing and main­tain­ing data back­ups is a key tech­ni­cal con­sid­er­a­tion. Geneal­o­gists store and share so much research on com­put­ers, mak­ing data loss a seri­ous risk. A large per­cent­age of research doc­u­men­ta­tion con­sists of dig­i­tal images, and the com­put­er of the aver­age geneal­o­gist often stores numer­ous scanned fam­i­ly pho­tos, maps, and doc­u­ments. We build com­plex data­bas­es of all we have gleaned about the fam­i­lies we are research­ing. All of that research is at risk in a com­put­er fail­ure, fire, hur­ri­cane, earth­quake, or theft. At some point, almost every­one will lose data as a result of a com­put­er crash or fail­ure. The fact is that com­put­ers and their sub­sys­tems, includ­ing hard dri­ves, fail from time to time, oft en with­out warn­ing. This puts crit­i­cal data, and the time spent col­lect­ing and orga­niz­ing it, at risk.

So how can you max­i­mize the like­li­hood of being able to restore your data? You should devel­op, imple­ment, and main­tain a com­pre­hen­sive elec­tron­ic data back­up plan and then car­ry out your plan. This arti­cle will out­line some of the strate­gies and con­sid­er­a­tions that can help you design such a back­up plan, and point out some of the ser­vices and soft­ware that can help you car­ry it out.


One of the most reli­able back­ups you can make is to have print­ed copies of your research find­ings. For exam­ple, you could print out and store paper pedi­grees, fam­i­ly group sheets, and nar­ra­tive reports.

Paper has been a trust­ed medi­um for com­mu­ni­ca­tion for approx­i­mate­ly two mil­len­nia. It has a num­ber of ben­e­fits includ­ing that it stands up to a wide vari­ety of con­di­tions, is not destroyed by pow­er surges, and does not need to “boot up.” One impor­tant thing to note about paper copies, how­ev­er, is that not all paper copies are alike. Some inks are not as per­ma­nent as one might like. While many com­put­er print­ers pro­duce a prod­uct that will stand up to rea­son­able amounts of light and some mois­ture, some inks fade too eas­i­ly or bleed with only a drop of water. Con­sid­er the qual­i­ty and resilience of your print­ed out­put as you plan your back­up strat­e­gy.

In 1991, a brush fire in the hills above Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, destroyed numer­ous homes, includ­ing the life’s work of sev­er­al authors. In some cas­es, both the com­put­ers and print­ed back­up copies were in the hous­es that burned, leav­ing the authors with noth­ing. While most data loss will come because of a sys­tem fail­ure, we should not for­get that com­put­ers can also be lost in con­fla­gra­tions, storms, and oth­er “acts of God” that might con­sume paper “back­up” copies as well. Paper copies can be handy for your ref­er­ence pur­pos­es, and to recov­er from com­put­er-only data loss­es, but if you are using paper copies as part of your back­up strat­e­gy, you should store these copies away from home in a safe deposit box or at the home of fam­i­ly or friends.

An increas­ing num­ber of researchers are not as com­fort­able with paper copies. I, for one, am almost as con­cerned about clut­ter, con­fu­sion of ver­sions, and waste of paper resources on tran­si­to­ry ver­sions of doc­u­ments, as I am about los­ing my data. Addi­tion­al­ly, I won­der if I will print out enough of the data I need to recov­er from a sys­tem loss. Will I be like­ly to con­tin­ue this month after month? For me, and geneal­o­gists like me, paper copies will not be a sig­nif­i­cant part of our back­up plan. We are try­ing to lim­it the amount of paper that comes across our desks, and real­ize that we are not like­ly to car­ry through with a paper back­up plan any­way. To account for not using paper back­ups, we need to be even more assid­u­ous about oth­er back­up tech­niques.

Local Backup

One impor­tant part of the toolk­it is per­form­ing a local back­up. This can be as sim­ple as cre­at­ing a CD or DVD of your Win­dows My Doc­u­ments fold­er. The local back­up will be faster than any remote back­up, and will give you imme­di­ate access to data in cas­es where the prob­lem is lim­it­ed to the data that you have backed up.

Apple OS X Time Machine Screen Capture
Apple OS X Time Machine

Own­ers of Apple com­put­ers have a decid­ed advan­tage for local back­up software—a built-in Mac­in­tosh OS X pro­gram called Time Machine. I con­sid­er this to be by far the eas­i­est to use local back­up method on the mar­ket. Time Machine runs in the back­ground to cre­ate peri­od­ic back­ups of data that have changed. You con­fig­ure which files it should back up and when, and Time Machine sim­ply does as it’s designed. If you ever need to restore data, you open Time Machine and nav­i­gate graph­i­cal­ly back­ward in time to the data you want to restore. (For more infor­ma­tion on Time Machine, vis­it>.) Win­dows 7 includes a util­i­ty called Back­up and Restore Cen­ter that has done well in reviews and is said to approach the Mac OS X Time Machine in func­tion­al­i­ty. (I do not have any per­son­al expe­ri­ence yet with this prod­uct.) There are also back­up pro­grams as part of Win­dows XP and Vista, but these cer­tain­ly do not com­pare to what the Mac OS offers. (For more infor­ma­tion on Win­dows 7 Back­up and Restore Cen­ter, go to>).

Remote Backup

As with paper back­ups, hav­ing all of your elec­tron­ic back­ups stored local­ly means that you are at the mer­cy of the ele­ments. Events such as a fire could destroy both your work­ing copies of elec­tron­ic files as well as your back­up. Part of your strat­e­gy should be to have remote back­ups. This can be as sim­ple as mail­ing full back­ups peri­od­i­cal­ly to a friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber, or stor­ing a full back­up in a safe deposit box and updat­ing it peri­od­i­cal­ly. How­ev­er, while these meth­ods are sim­ple to under­stand, they require the same kind of month-in-and-month-out ded­i­ca­tion that paper back­ups require. There is some risk that the one month that you skip send­ing the back­up CD is the month that you real­ly need it.

A method of remote back­up that is gain­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty is the use of a back­up ser­vice. The way this works is that you con­tract with a ven­dor, install and con­fig­ure its back­up pro­gram, and allow the sys­tem to back­up the files and fold­ers you select on the sched­ule you con­fig­ure, or dynam­i­cal­ly as you save files. Some of the ser­vices (iDrive, Mem­o­pal, SOS Back­up) lim­it the amount of data you back­up, but allow for an unlim­it­ed num­ber of home com­put­ers. Oth­ers allow for an unlim­it­ed amount of data, but bill on a per com­put­er basis. Let us com­pare some of the best known ser­vices.

Backup Planning

As you plan your back up strat­e­gy, you want to con­sid­er rotat­ing full back­ups with back­ups of recent­ly changed files. You also want to bal­ance local and remote back­ups. Whether you are deal­ing with a local or remote back­up, a CD or a hard dri­ve, or a net­work dri­ve, you could end up with a back­up that you can­not store for one rea­son or anoth­er. It’s best to account for this by back­ing up in more than one way. A strat­e­gy could include some­thing like this:

  • An ongo­ing sys­tem-based back­up (using Mac­in­tosh OS X Time Machine or Win­dows 7 Back­up and Restore Cen­ter)
  • An ongo­ing remote back­up (I have suc­cess­ful­ly used Mozy, but all the ven­dors in the table have their ben­e­fits)
  • A month­ly full local back­up to an exter­nal disk (CD, DVD, or disk dri­ve on anoth­er com­put­er) using Mac­in­tosh OS X Time Machine or Win­dows 7 Back­up and Restore Cen­ter
  • A week­ly incre­men­tal local back­up (of only what’s changed since last week) to an exter­nal disk (CD, DVD, or disk dri­ve on anoth­er com­put­er) using Mac­in­tosh OS X Time Machine or Win­dows 7 Back­up and Restore Cen­ter.

The strat­e­gy you devel­op should reflect the fre­quen­cy with which you add and mod­i­fy your data. It should also include both local and remote back­ups. Most impor­tant­ly, it should be some­thing you will actu­al­ly do on a reg­u­lar basis. Just like with eat­ing your fruits and veg­eta­bles, back­ing up your genealog­i­cal data is not some­thing you can do only some of the time. The ben­e­fit in lim­it­ing your risk of data loss only comes from back­ing up so reg­u­lar­ly. This is why I am a fan of online auto­mat­ed ser­vices such as the ones list­ed above and soft­ware as intu­itive and auto­mat­ed as Apple’s Time Machine. Hav­ing your back­up set to run on a reg­u­lar basis, or in the back­ground of your dai­ly work, helps get it done and keep your data secure well into the future. While design­ing and imple­ment­ing your back up plan may not be as com­pelling as find­ing your great-great-grandfather’s Civ­il War prison record, the infor­ma­tion you are so excit­ed­ly gath­er­ing, abstract­ing, and assess­ing will remain at risk until you “eat your veg­eta­bles.”

This arti­cle, which orig­i­nal­ly appeared in a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form in the Nation­al Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety’s NGS Mag­a­zine, is repub­lished here by per­mis­sion.

Jones, Jor­dan. “Pre­serv­ing your dig­i­tal lega­cy: Back­ing up your data,” NGS Mag­a­zine, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan­u­ary-March 2010), 63–65.