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.

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