How devastated would you be if you lost all of your family history data? What if you fired up Family Tree Maker or RootsMagic tomorrow and they were unable to read any portion of your family tree? What if your computer doesn’t even boot tomorrow when you try to turn it on? How would you feel about losing those 1500 photos that you’ve scanned and have on your hard drive?
Hard drives do crash and files do become corrupt. It’s not a matter of if you will lose some data, but when you’ll lose it. If you use a computer for any length of time, you’re almost guaranteed to lose data at some point.
When you do suffer a data loss, it might be just a corrupt family history data file. Or it might be a complete hard drive meltdown, where you lose absolutely everything.
Instead of hoping or assuming that you will never lose data, the best plan is to assume that you definitely will lose data at some point and to prepare for the day that it happens. Your backup plan should be dependable enough that you wouldn’t suffer even a little anxiety if you discovered tomorrow that absolutely everything on your PC was lost.
Here’s my basic mantra–everything on your computer that you care about needs to be backed up. And to make sure you can recover lost data, you should back things up in more than one way and store the backups in more than one place.
Think of backups like seat belts. Yes, you can get away without wearing seat belts in your car for a while. But if you ever do get in an accident, you’re going to really wish you’d been wearing your seat belt. The same is true of backups–if (or when) you lose some data, you’re going to wish you’d taken the extra effort to back everything up.
To that end, here is a list of things that you can do to protect yourself. These aren’t alternatives–my proposal is that you do everything on this list. Yes, doing all of this is a pain. But so is losing 10 years of work and having no way to get back what you’ve lost. Do you really want to risk losing everything, for the sake of convenience? Consider this list as–the things that you’ll wish you’d been doing after you suffer a major data loss.
1. Identify the location of all of your genealogical data (on all machines)
The first step is to figure out what data you need to back up. Here is a basic list of the types of data you should be most focused on.
- Genealogy program data files
- Generated reports
- Scanned photos
- Scanned documents
- E-mail data files
- Personal documents and writing, e.g. travelogues, lists, source data, etc.
- Web browser favorites (bookmarks)
I’ll go into more detail in a future post on exactly where to find things like genealogy program data files and e-mail data files.
It will also be important, when planning the next steps, to have some sense of how much data you’ll need to back up. If you’re backing up mainly genealogy data files, this might be as little as 50-100MB. On the other hand, if you’re like me and you have lots of high-resolution scanned photos, the amount of data might grow to as much as 100GB or more.
2. Synchronize your data between multiple computers at home
The first technique to use, in order to protect your data, is to synchronize your data between multiple PCs at home. I realize that not everyone has more than one PC, but it doesn’t take a very powerful machine at all to serve as a backup device–i.e. a machine that you don’t use regularly, but just store backed up files on.
Once you’ve identified the data to back up and the machine to use, you’ll want to pick a software tool that does the file synchronization for you in an automated fashion. The basic idea is as follows–when you first install the tool, it will copy all of the data to the second machine, creating a “mirror” of the data on your main PC. What this means is that every directory and file is duplicated on the backup machine and you could go to that machine and see the same directory/file structure as what you have on your main PC. If anything goes wrong with the data on the first machine, you have an exact copy on the second machine, so you won’t lose anything.
Once the synchronization tool has been set up, it will run all of the time in the background and (here’s the cool part) wait until you change something on your main PC and then automatically copy the changes over to the backup machine. In this way, you never have to worry about doing any backups yourself. The tool takes care of everything and ensures that you always have two identical copies of all data.
The benefit of “on-site” file synchronization is that if you lose something, you have a backup copy that you can get to easily and without any trouble. Just copy the file from the backup machine to your main PC.
Here are some basic tools that support automatic file synchronization:
- Microsoft LiveMesh (free, still in beta)
- Windows Live FolderShare (free, still in beta)
- SugarSync (starting at $25/yr for 10GB, or $1/yr per GB)
- Microsoft SyncToy (free)
Of these tools, only FolderShare and SugarSync are available on the Mac.
3. Use an online backup service to back up your data to “the cloud”
In addition to synchronizing data between multiple PCs at home, you should sign up for a service that backs your data up to an online location. (Some people refer to this as storing your data “in the cloud”, meaning–the Internet).
Online backup tools/services work in much the same way as the synchronization tools that I describe above. Once you set up the service, it should run automatically and guarantee that any files you change are automatically copied to an online location.
There are a couple of subtle differences between doing synchronization to another PC and doing online backups:
- Online backups will do a better job at storing old versions of files, or keeping files after you’ve deleted them locally
- Because the online service might store several versions of a document, it may be a little harder to get access to the current version
- Online backups can run quite a bit slower than local synchronizations–a concern unless you have a very fast Internet connection
- With online backups, you’re relying on the online site to stay up and on the company to stay in business
- You’ll typically pay more for online backup services than for file synchronization tools
Here are some companies that provide online backup services:
- Carbonite ($50/yr unlim data)
- IDrive ($5/mo, 150GB)
- JungleDisk / Amazon S3 ($0.15/GB/mo)
- LiveMesh (free, beta, max 5GB)
- Mozy ($50/yr, unlim, can be slow)
4. Do quarterly archival backups and off-site
The next major leg of your backup strategy should be to do occasional “archive” backups to something like CD-ROMs and to store the resulting media off-site. (Somewhere other than the building where your main PC is located).
Doing archival backups periodically, in addition to other backup methods, is critical, though it typically involves more manual effort than the other strategies. The reason that archives are so important is that both synchronization and online backup have the goal of duplicating the directories and files on your main PC. This means that if you delete a bunch of files on your main PC, the files will eventually also be deleted from either your backup PC (if synchronizing) or from the online service. Once this happens, you’ll have no way to get your data back.
Online backup services are pretty good about keeping deleted files around for a short period of time. So if you delete a file and notice quickly enough, you’ll be able to get your file back. But if you discover that you deleted some stuff a year ago and need it back, odds are good that the online service will have already thrown the data away.
Here are some tools that make doing regular archival backups easier:
- Backup Utility for Windows (XP) or Windows Backup (Vista) (free, built-in)
- Genie Backup Manager Pro ($70)
- NovaBackup ($50)
- Windows Live OneCare ($50/yr)
5. Store personal passwords on multiple encrypted thumb drives
We all have lots of different username/password combinations that we’re required to create when visiting web sites, or signing up for various services. These usernames and passwords constitutes data which is very important to keep backed up.
Unlike other types of data, it’s probably not a good idea to just back this data up with the other data, e.g. as part of an online service. If you lose everything on your computer and need to go back to your online service to retrieve the data, you’ll need to know at least your username/password for the online service.
Because of this, I recommend keeping all of your username/password combinations on a USB flash drive that you keep with you at all times. That way, even if you lose all data on your PC, you still have the passwords that you need to access your online data or services.
The problem with carrying all of your data on a USB drive is that it’s not secure. If you lose the drive, someone else could read all of your data. For that reason, it’s important to also encrypt the data on the thumb drive. When you encrypt the data, you pick a single pass phrase that you’ll be guaranteed of remembering. Entering that pass phrase “unlocks” the thumb drive and you can then access everything else.
To store and encrypt your password data on a thumb drive, I recommend doing the following:
- Buy a USB flash drive. It doesn’t have to be very large.
- Create a text file on the flash drive and enter all of your username/password combinations
- Use a product like TrueCrypt to encrypt all data on the drive
- Create a second flash drive that is identical to the first, also encrypted
- Keep one flash drive with you and store one in a safe place
6. Keep copies of all installation media off-site
It’s also important to safeguard the programs or applications that you’ve installed on your PC. If you suffered a complete PC meltdown, you’ll need to reinstall all of your applications before restoring your data.
The best strategy is to buy a sleeve that holds a number of different CDs and to store all of your software in the sleeve. For software that you’ve downloaded, rather than bought, burn the downloaded images to a CD and store that CD in the folder as well.
Once you have a single folder with all of your software, store it in a safe place, at a different site from your main computer. This way, if you suffered some disaster at home, you’d still have access to all of your original software.
7. Create regular genealogy reports and distribute to several family members
As an added safeguard, it doesn’t hurt to create regular printed reports of all of your family data and to distribute these reports as widely as possible. Information that is located only on a computer, no matter how well backed up, is not nearly as likely to survive as data that has been written down or printed out.
Distributing your reports and charts to as many family members as possible ensures that the data will survive even if you lose all of your electronic data.
Another important reasons to do this is because none of us can guarantee how long we’ll be around. We may have the most organized set of electronic family history data imaginable, well backed up. But if we die and no one continues on with our work, it will all be lost. To guard against this, just make sure that as many people as possible have copies of the data and of all of your work.
8. Get physical prints of all digital photos and store off-site
It’s equally important to protect digital photos by getting physical copies as soon as possible. Again, the best strategy is to store the physical copies in a location different from the PC where the digital copies are stored. If your house should burn down, you’ll at least be able to go back to the prints and re-digitize them.
As with reports and charts, it’s also a good idea to distribute photos as widely as possible.
9. Monitor how your backups are doing
A backup plan is not effective if it has stopped working. So it’s important for you to periodically check on your various backup strategies. Go browse locations of online data, or synched data. Try retrieving data from the archival backups that you’re creating. It’s important to make sure that your data is truly being backed up and that you’re able to retrieve it.
10. Write up a description of where your data is and give to family member(s)
Finally, it’s a good idea to write down a detailed description of where all of your family data is. Include a description of your PCs, exact folders where the data is located, software programs used, and a description of where your data is backed up and how. Make sure that several family members have a copy of this description. You should also make it clear what is to be done with this information after you’ve gone. Ideally, you’d bequeath it to another family member that is willing to carry on your work. But if that’s not possible, you might consider donating the information to a local genealogical society, or historical society. The main goal is to make sure that the information is preserved, no matter what happens to you.
That’s my complete list of what I think is necessary to safeguard your genealogical data. Not only do these strategies ensure that you’ll never lose any data, they also help make sure that your data is properly preserved for future generations.
Doing all of this might be a little bit of work. But you need to consider how much of a tragedy it would be to lose any of your data. Then weigh that against the inconvenience of doing regular backups. For most of us, family data is so incredibly important that it’s worth doing almost anything to make sure that it stays safe.