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How to preserve a record of your 2020 experience for future generations

Photo of UNC Charlotte March to End Injustice, June, 2020

“Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in.”

--David Burr Gerrard

By all accounts, 2020 will be remembered as a year of great significance to our city, state, and nation. The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, the movement for racial justice, and the national and local elections are transforming our world in ways that will inevitably be closely studied by future historians.

How will future generations learn about 2020? Chances are, you have created some personal records this year, such as photos, videos, email, social media, and text messages. If preserved, these records can become the archives that will shed light on how the cataclysmic events of this year affected everyday life. These can be creative works, or just reflect the activities of an ordinary day.

For more than 50 years, one way in which Charlotte individuals, families, and organizations have ensured historically significant records are preserved is by donating them to Atkins Library, so we can add them to our special collections and share them with the community. We are grateful for the trust the Charlotte community has shown in us as stewards of these records.

But we don’t typically collect records soon after they have been created. (This is particularly true for photos, video and social media documenting social justice activities, since these may serve as evidence in ongoing legal proceedings. For more about the ethics of archiving social movements, see Documenting the Now). So before they come to us, they must be preserved by those who created them.

But preserving personal archives is a unique challenge in the digital age. While boxes of photos, letters, or other personal documents will survive from generation to generation if left undisturbed (and protected from bugs, heat and humidity, water, and fire), the same cannot be said for photos and other documentation in digital formats. These require technology to access and store them, so they must be intentionally preserved.

Preserving your digital archives

By following a few basic steps, you can ensure these personal archives are preserved:

Step 1: Locate your digital records 

Much of your documentation like photos, videos, text messages, and other documents are stored on your computer or your phone. But don’t forget about the content you create on social media, in email, or other third-party platforms.

Step 2: Select what to preserve

Which audio recordings, emails, photographs, or videos, text messages, emails, pdf’s, social media posts, or other documents will you select? You don’t need to save everything to preserve a historical record. If you like, you can pick a few of your favorite or most meaningful items. 

Get copies of your selected content off of third-party social media and email sites. Each of these platforms has a different way of exporting your data, instructions for which can usually be found in each site’s help or FAQ section. 

To get your text messages off of your phone, you can search the Web for how to export them from the type of phone you have (iPhone or Android).

Step 3: Organize your files

Put your files into some kind of order, such as by date or subject, or anything that makes sense to you. Rename your files in a way that gives some indication of the contents, subject, or date.  Avoid using special characters such as emoji or ! ? @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) _ + [ ] - = \ | , . / < > as some computer systems may interpret them differently from how you intend, or refuse to accurately read your data. 

 Step 4: Follow the 3-2-1 rule

You should have at least three copies of your selected files. These copies should be on two different storage media; for example, on your computer and on an external hard drive or flash drive. In addition, you should have at least one off-site backup such as a flash drive in a bank safety deposit box or with a relative in a different household. A cloud storage service is also a type of off-site storage.

 Step 5: Maintain your records

 Make an upgrade plan for how you store your files. Hard drives and flash drives will wear out, so plan on upgrading your storage media at least every five years. Video recordings should be played every few years to make sure the software to play them is still widely available -- save a version in the latest format every few years.

More Information

For more information about personal digital archiving, check out these resources:

As always, we invite you to contact us for support preserving your personal archives, whether you might consider donating copies to the library eventually or you plan to hand them down through your family or share them with others in your community. 

--Tyler Cline and Dawn Schmitz

Photo:  Students demonstrating on campus on June 6, 2020. Courtesy Lynn Roberson, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.