How to save and preserve your writing for your grandchildren and beyond
The author runs a broadcast technology consultancy and regularly advises national broadcasters on how to build and maintain accessible digital archives of their valuable (and irreplaceable) assets. What works for the professionals can work for you too.
You wrote it - don't lose it!
Not everyone worries about posterity, but if, like most writers, you take pride in your output, the prospect of it all just disappearing, whether in your lifetime or after, is not a pleasant one. Fortunately, with a little care taken now, it is possible to minimise the risk of loss, so that future generations have a chance to know you through your writings, through what you choose to leave behind, and not just as someone in an old photograph wearing ridiculous clothes.
Survey: Will your content survive you?
Which of these best describes your preservation strategy?See results without voting
Safety First - Remote Replication
If your latest work exists only as a single file on your PC, it is at its most vulnerable. You could accidentally delete it, the file could be corrupted, the operating system or hardware could crash - there are so many things that could go wrong. Here are a few things you can do to protect it, in order of effectiveness (worst first!)
- Make a local copy to a back-up folder on the PC.
- Print it out as a hard copy
- Back it up to removable media (CD, DVD, USB-Drive)
- Email it to your own webmail (Gmail, Yahoo, etc.)
- Upload it to a content site (HubPages, Blogger, etc.)
No 1 is virtually useless because it only protects against 'finger trouble' on the local PC.
Nos 2 & 3 are better, although conventional wisdom among Broadcast and National Archivists is that the minimum physical separation between the original and the back-up should be 40 kilometres or 25 miles (in case the main site goes on fire or, worst case, is bombed!)
No 4 immediately gives you excellent security, because your file is now not only stored on a remote mail server, where it is protected against disk failure by RAID technology, but it is also replicated from that mail server to a disaster recovery server on another remote site.
No 5, publishing on HubPages, Blogger, etc, is best of all. Not only does it provide the same file security as the mail server option, but it also starts the process of automatic metadata creation through the provider's own indexing systems and through search engine discovery.
The Chained Library
Data and Metadata
In Hereford Cathedral, there is an ancient library of hand written books dating from the 12th Century. As the books were unique, they were chained to the library shelves, and to protect their spines, they were stored as in the photograph, spines uppermost. This is how the medieval monks protected their irreplaceable data. But, how did they ever find anything in such a blind library?
There was one more book, also chained, but on a flat table. This book listed all the books in the library, by title, author, summary, shelf location and book position. This was their Amazon Catalog, This was their metadata, 900 years ago.
Metadata literally means data about data. Metadata is how you search and find what you are looking for. I'll say more about it later, but for now let's just say that if you zip up all your precious content and save it on CDs or DVDs, you might just as well have thrown it away. Without metadata, no-one is ever going to search through it all, not even you. They say content is King, but unreferenced content isn't even a page(!)
How safe is the Web?
Content uploaded to HubPages, Blogspot, etc. is very much safer than content stored at home (and of course doing both is safer still). But for how long? The Internet is very young, especially compared with the written or printed word. Companies don't always survive, and while I would trust a profitable service provider to look after my materials, a bankrupt provider would have higher priorities than my few megabytes. Ironically, the chances are your data will survive, as it is replicated on caches all over the world, but as the structured metadata collapses with the collapsed provider, your material is as good as lost.
Setting up your own website is not the answer either, because if you're not around to pay the various registration and hosting fees, the site will outlive you for no more than a year or so.
It would seem, then, that while the Internet is your friend as a living, breathing author, something more controllable is indicated for any permanent record. So, where to start?
Metadata, metadata, metadata...
Remember the monks' library? You need a catalog (or database) of everything you want to keep. The catalog should have one page (or card - think of a library card-file) for every item. The page can have as much detail (as many fields) as you want to provide, but as a minimum it should contain these fields:
- the Title of the piece
- the Author's name (not a difficult question!)
- the File-name of the master copy (if it exists on a computer or server. If it is handwritten, use the field to reserve a file name for the future)
- the File-Name of the back-up copy (note as above)
- the Location of the master copy (note - location can be a URL, like http://www,etc,etc, or it can be a physical location, like 'Mimi's house, spare bedroom, red box on top shelf'. This is the single most important field of metadata!)
- the Location of the back-up copy. (note as above)
- the Summary of the content
- etc - whatever additional fields are important to you, for example: origination date, publication date, revision date, version number, and so on.
File and Media Formats (important!)
Two related but different and important concepts for the would be archivist are:
File Format - assuming your material is digitised (i.e. entered into, stored on, or saved from, a computer) it will have to be in a recognised file format. It is best to use the simplest and most generic formats, as these can be read by more applications and are more future-proof. Text files (.txt) and simple hypertext (,html) are the most universal. Formats that are specific to a word processor program (e.g. .doc) are higher risk. Cross-platform 'standards' (.pdf) are probably pretty safe. As a quick test, try to open your preferred file in Notepad or Textpad. If it opens and almost all of what you see is the content, everything should be ok. But if the content is swamped by 'instruction characters' (aka gibberish!) then it might be wise to reconsider.
Media Format - this refers to the physical media, e.g. flash drive, CD-ROM, DVD. There's a guessing game here. Who knows what we'll be using in 30 years time? Still, there are good and bad choices. Avoid formats that depend on complicated physical dimensions and precision moving parts. Your grand-daughter will not possess a CD player. (Do you own a wax cylinder phonograph or even a 5-inch floppy disk drive? - QED!) USB Flash Drives are a far better bet. Even if/when USB disappears as a standard, any half-way competent Engineer could recreate the four simple contacts and send/receive drivers to make it work. But a CD reader would need a precision production plant. Of course, another great unknown is how long will an unread Flash Drive survive? We simply don't know, because they have not been around long enough to die.
So here's what I do:
- upload all my stuff to HubPages, Blogger and a couple of Websites
- download the hubs and blogs as complete webpages, and mirror the websites by FTP
- decide what I want to preserve
- create an index (metadata file) on Google Docs, of all the good stuff
- replicate the index file to my PC and keep a printout of it
- mail a copy of the index file to my daughter (miles away)
- re-send a copy with every update
- save an html file (master) and a txt file (backup) of every indexed article, on two separate flash drives
- replicate the flash drives, and store them far away
- (by the way, I don't bother to save pictures or formatting - text is everything!)
- save two paper print-outs of every article (in case flash drives die)
- mail one copy to my daughter
I wish - -
Of course I don't do all that. I know I should, but I'm too busy. I'm too busy helping my paying clients to preserve 25+ years of accumulated audiotapes, videotapes and films of inestimable value. Stuff of history, of the breaking and making of nations. That's my job. I'll take care of my own scribblings when I retire. Meanwhile - do as I say, not as I do. Your grand-kids will thank you.
and thanks for reading!
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