News Column

Genealogy: Back up your data

February 15, 2014

Barry Ewell; By Barry Ewell For the Deseret News

Back up your data -- need we say more? When I think about my genealogy research, I realize without the computer, scanner, digital camera, printers and many other peripherals, I would have been able to do much less.

The projects I have worked on the last couple of years involve thousands of documents and photos captured electronically as both a means of preservation and conducting research. The work exceeds 200 gigabytes of data. Much of the work has been cataloged. Copies of the images have been distributed to other genealogists to help research. Photos and family histories have been inexpensively shared with family as a way to help them understand their heritage. Many of the images are not uploaded online to a family history site to share with our family worldwide. Some images have been exchanged with other researchers to help in joint collaboration on a particular project. I think of the many hours I've spent working at researching, preserving and sharing family history.

How incredibly sad it would be if data were lost because there were no backup? Recently, my main hard drive failed. Thank goodness I had a backup, or 20,000 images would have been lost. Sometimes it is possible to recover data from a drive failure.

There is no excuse for not having a backup plan.

What genealogy data should I back up?

With as much data as is stored on a modern computer system, how do you decide what to back up? Should you just put the entire system on a CD/DVD, external hard drive or tape drive and be done with it? There are several problems with putting your entire system in a backup, not the least of which is cost of hard drives and CDs. Also, the time to perform a backup is increased when the entire system is stored.

As long as you have the original CDs for your software, there is no need to include the programs themselves in backups. For example, your operating system and word processor shouldn't be backed up. The data files, however, cannot be re-created, so you should include them in backups.

You DO want to back up:

All your Web pages, databases and anything that you made or would have trouble replacing

All the information from your financial software

All genealogy images

All genealogy databases

Important correspondence

Internal documents (important memos and the like)

Anything you would suffer for lack of if lost

You MIGHT want to back up:

Preferences or bookmarks from Web browsers

Your personal settings for how your computer works

Anything that would be a nuisance if it were lost

You probably DON'T need to back up:

Your operating system, so long as you have the original disks

Your software, so long as you have the original disks

Strictly temporary files

Anything that you are certain you won't need if the entire computer becomes rubbish.

When should I back up?

How many days worth of information could you afford to lose if your computer crashed? What about if your office or home burned down? What about if most of your city was wiped out by a tornado or a flood?

The answers to these questions will tell you how often you should do a backup, and roughly where you should store them.

I usually back up my genealogy once per week and sometimes more often, especially if I have been doing extensive scanning. If you are actively entering data or merging data into your file, back up the file on which you are working before you start the merge and then back up again every couple of hours and when you are ready to stop for the day.

Of course this will vary on whether you added new information to your genealogy database. Then make sure the backup is in a secure place (e.g., office, a friend or relative's house, a safety deposit box) away from home in case there was a fire. Exchange backups weekly.

Test your backup files occasionally to make sure they really work. If you use CDs or DVDs for your backups, then back up your files on more than one and then rotate them each time. That way if one gets scratched, broken or otherwise damaged, you'll have a fairly recent backup on another CD.

I have talked to genealogists who have monthly/six-month backups that are stored somewhere distant. It's a matter of choice and what risks you want to take.

Any backup plan is simply a way of controlling risk. You risk losing a day's, a week's, a month's or a year's data -- instead of risking losing it all. When devising your backup plan, think about how much risk you are willing to take.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History," on Facebook at and founder of, an educational website for genealogy and family history.

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Source: Deseret News (UT)

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