Saving Your Digital Life: Personal digital archiving and digital estate planning

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By Carrie Smith, courtesy of American Libraries

Technology has changed how we store information. You might have your grandmother’s photo book, even a digitized version—but what about the photos on your phone, or the data on your Twitter account or Instagram?

Katlin Seagraves is the digital literacy associate at the Tulsa City-County Library where she manages the library’s Digital Literacy Lab. At “Save As: Preserving Your Digital Life” on June 24 at the ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C., Seagraves educated attendees on methods for preserving born-digital personal data like photos and social media.

Seagraves divides the archiving process into three parts: personal digital archiving, which includes saving and backing up digital files; digitization of important items; and digital estate planning, much like a will for your digital assets.

When it comes to personal archiving, Seagraves recommends saving photos, audio, videos, documents, and photos of heirlooms. Files should be backed up regularly, and those backups should follow the 3-2-1 rule: three copies, with two saved locally on different devices (like a computer and an external hard drive) and one offsite or in cloud storage. Files are generally lost because of damage, durability issues, or obsolescence. “Functionally, all media storage has an expiration date,” Seagraves said. For this reason, Tulsa City-County library has conversion devices for older media like floppy disks, VHS, and 8mm film as well as scanners for negatives and slides.

However, “if you can’t find it, it functionally doesn’t exist,” Seagraves said. When naming files, she urges people to be descriptive, concise, and consistent. “If it’s something super clever you came up with, you’re not going to remember what it means 15 years from now.”

Seagraves also focuses on the importance of metadata. “Many of our customers use metadata every day; they may just not realize it,” she said. Digital photos, for example, are automatically tagged with location and camera data. You can also add details including a title and subject and add comments and tags. Seagraves recommends tagging photos with the names of people in them. “It’s not very impressive when it’s only 30 photos, but when you have 4,000 and you can easily search them, it can be a really big timesaver later.”

Seagrave’s tips for digital archiving are:

  • Weed your collection
  • Inventory your files
  • Update your backups often
  • Save your work in sustainable formats
  • Don’t get frustrated

Perhaps less well-known is the concept of digital estate management: how you plan to pass along your digital assets. Digital assets can be “anything from your Facebook account to the memory card in the shoebox by your bedside table to access to online banking accounts,” Seagraves said.

You can export and save the data from your social media accounts ahead of time, but many social media platforms, including Facebook, have options for memorializing or deleting accounts when a user dies. You can assign a legacy contact who will take control of your profile and decide what that person has access to and what they should do with it—whether it’s to create a memorial page, or save some information and then delete the account.

To get started with digital estate planning:

  • Create an inventory of your online assets, including accounts and how to access them
  • Decide what you want done with your assets when you die
  • Name a digital executor
  • Store the information in a secure location
  • Make it legal by writing it into your will

Seagraves also recommended several books for further information: The Complete Guide to Personal Digital Archiving (ALA Editions, 2018), Managing the Digital You (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), and Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage (Information Today, 2013). Look for these books at your library, and ask your librarian for addtitional information about protecting your digital assets.