Electronic Records Day 10.10.12: Strategies for Personal Digital Records

The following tip sheet has been prepared by the Council of State Archivists, www.statearchivists.org

Electronic files are much more fragile than paper records, and their long-term survival requires attention and planning.

Personal Files:

  • Focus on your most important files. These files may include: resumes, school papers, financial spreadsheets, letters, maps, and family histories.
    • Decide which documents have long-term value.
  • For the most critical files/images you should print them out.  Doing so increases the chances that your documents and images will remain accessible and allows you to focus upon backing up and copying/migrating files that cannot easily be printed out (e.g., databases, video files).
  • Create multiple copies of the files and manage them in different places.  Doing so will keep your information safe even if your computer crashes.
    • Make at least two copies of your files – more copies are better.
    • Use new, good-quality storage media.
  • Organize your files by giving individual documents descriptive file names.  Creating a directory/folder structure on your computer will help you organize your files.  Write a brief description of the directory structure and the documents for future reference.
  • Check your files at least once a year to make sure you can read them.  Every 3 – 5 years you will need to copy and migrate/convert your files to a newer media.  Storage media have limited life spans, and hardware and software changes can keep you from accessing files stored on media that hasn’t deteriorated.
    • Migrate or convert files created using older software.
  • Convert important files to a universal output format such as plain text (.txt), Rich Text Format (.rtf), or PDF/A (a form of PDF designed to support long-term preservation).

Digital Images:

  • In addition to facing the threats outlined above, image files are often compressed, which reduces file size but can permanently remove some visual information.  Save images either uncompressed or with lossless compression.
  • Back up and copy/migrate your images as outlined above
  • Organize them as you create them; you may eventually have thousands of images!
  • To avoid compression-related losses, save the images you create with a digital camera or scanner uncompressed TIFF (.tif), or JPEG2000 (.jp2) format.  The resulting files are often quite large, so treat them as “master copies” and create GIF (.gif) or JPEG (.jpg) “use copies” to share via e-mail or the Web.
  • You can also print out your images.
    • To ensure that your images last for decades, order prints from a lab that will place them on an archival medium.

Additional Resources:

The Library of Congress is an excellent resource.  Additional information can be found at:


The Library of Congress has produced a video on personal document preservation entitled Why Digital Preservation is Important to Everyone.  It can be found at: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/multimedia/videos/digipress.html

Personal Documents Preservation Guides:

The Library of Congress publication entitled, Preserving Your Digital Memories is available at:


The University of Michigan Library publication entitled, Preserving Personal Digital Files is also a great resource.  It contains a wealth of suggestions for further reading as well.  This publication can be found at: