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A Question for Historians Who Back it Up….

We are now deep in the era of digital research.  Zotero, Mendeley, Skim, Dropbox and a host of other tools are changing how we take notes, keep track of articles, annotate, and save and backup our research.  Many archives and libraries are digital camera-friendly, which is lovely, because with departments and programs increasingly strapped for resources, research trips are getting shorter and copies are becoming more expensive.

Historians have been discussing the implications of this for some time but the conversations often fall short on the question of storage.  And after several years of using a digital camera in the archives, I have question for any and all historians using digital tools and technology for their research:

What is the best way to backup all of those thousands of JPGs, PNGs, TIFFs, and PDFs and still have them readily accessible?

Most discussions* around productivity, technology, and archival research  suggest some combination of external hard drives, Time Machine (for Mac), and cloud storage (like Dropbox) work for everyone.  I use all three methods–across four different external hard drives organized by media (primary sources, still images, audio and moving images, and a fourth that captures all of the above for ultimate redundancy).  But the more material I gather, the longer it takes my external hard drives to sync, the more memory the transfer eats up, the more I’m chained to my desk finding other tasks to tackle while I wait for the process to complete.  Or, on the home stretch towards a deadline, I have to decide not to back up at all.

On top of this, I’m more and more attracted to the power of the cloud to sync archival material across all of my devices, keeping it safe and available when or where I need it.  Carrying my archive hard drive with me to work, the library, the archive, the cafe, and home worries me (especially on morning when I haven’t backed up the night before).  Unfortunately, private cloud storage, if free in small batches, gets expensive in the amount I need (the cheapest I found was SugarSync at $40/month for 500 GB).

I can’t be alone in this.  What ways have you found to backup digital reproductions of archival material and how is it working for you?

(ps.  I’ve had more luck finding ways to sort and organize material, images of documents in particular.  I’ll share my hacks in a later post…)


*A few resources for those interested in all manner of digital research, with a mild emphasis on archival research:

Miriam Posner, “Share your (digital) research workflow!” Digital Humanities Questions & Answers (and her post-discussion roundup “Embarrassments of riches: Managing research assets, ” Miriam Posner’s Blog)

Kirklin Bateman, Sheila Brennan, Douglas Mudd, and Paula Petrik, “Taking a Byte Out of the Archives: Making Technology Work for You,” Perspectives (Online)

Alex Galarza, “Zotero in the Archives,” GradHacker

Ansley T. Erickson, “Writing History in the Digital Age: Reflections on 10,000 Notecards,” Writing History in the Digital Age

Electronic Researcher at George Mason University (

Image Credit:  Khairulo, “A new book,” 2007, Flicker Commons (via CompFight)

Be First to Comment

  1. Brian Croxall Brian Croxall September 18, 2012

    One suggestion, at least for photos, might be to upload them to a Flickr Pro account. $25 or so will get you a year’s access and the ability to upload as many full-sized files as you’d want. Then you can download them again from anywhere. And you can make your account private, so no one else can see your photos.

    • Jessica Marie Johnson Jessica Marie Johnson September 20, 2012

      Ahhhh! So much common sense there. Flickr didn’t even come to mind. Thanks!

  2. Alex Galarza Alex Galarza September 19, 2012

    If you have a workflow for optimizing images and combining them into PDFs under one citation, Zotero’s cloud storage seems like the best choice for me. The rates are quite reasonable and you have the added bonus of having the same software to both backup your material and read/annotate it.

    • Jessica Marie Johnson Jessica Marie Johnson September 20, 2012

      I haven’t found Zotero as user-friendly as others for archival research (I do love it for books and articles). But I’d be interested in your workflow. At the moment I find images of documents easier to manipulate (lighten, darken, zoom, crop) and organize them into folders as opposed to combining them into PDFs.

  3. miriamposner miriamposner September 19, 2012

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I use Backblaze for backup. I’ve been happy with them — I don’t have to think about it, and their customer service is very responsive.

  4. Jessica Marie Johnson Jessica Marie Johnson September 20, 2012

    Thanks you for this! So far, Backblaze seems the most reasonable (price range, capacity). And for my needs. I really appreciate the advice given and having *choices.* Much obliged. If other ideas come to you, please pass them on.

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