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.