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Hallo again to all.

Probably the most common emails that we receive here at Anglicans Online (other than offers to sell us Viagra and fake bulletins from faraway banks urging us to 'click here') are requests for information from the past. A writer asks if we can help her find a priest who changed her life 50 years ago. Another writer asks if we can find his baptism records. Do we know what happened to a certain church in Canada? Do we know why a certain diocese changed its name in 1957? We get a steady stream of these questions, and we do our best either to answer them or to refer the writer to a more likely source for that information. Most of these writers assume that we have full access to all of the records kept by every Anglican parish in the world.

One of the Dead Sea scrollsFor many centuries, parish churches have been accumulating information about events that matter. National and local governments keep statistics and basic records, but our churches are where the rich details are kept. When we sifted through our own personal archives not long ago, we found the usual curious mixture of irreplaceable items and 'why ever did we want to keep that?' Parish archives aren't usually any different, except that after a few decades, there is rarely anyone around who knows whether some seemingly-worthless item can be discarded.

Those who have studied archives, archiving, records retention, and preservation have learned about acid-free paper, controlled humidity, fireproof storage boxes, document repair, and book rebinding. If you or your organization have been through a tragedy, you may have learned how to dry wet paper, clean smoke-damaged materials, or make copies of fire-damaged images. Physical records are tough, and if you learn about and follow best practices for materials, handling, and storage conditions, they can be even tougher.

One time a few years ago after a major natural disaster that damaged a lot of libraries, we recall visiting a restoration site and talking to the staff who were working full time, week after week, on cleaning water- and fire-damaged books. One of those restoration technicians told us that she couldn't answer a question we had asked because the disk had crashed on the computer in her workspace and she had lost that information. We didn't want to be rude to a person doing such heroic work for such low wages, but we wanted to say 'Can't you see that the information in your computer needs to be conserved and preserved and kept safe, just like these books?'

A contemporary hard driveSince we are Anglicans Online, not Anglicans Offline or Anglicans Hardcopy, all of our own records are electronic. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid losing data. We are near-fanatical about making backup copies and offsite copies, and we are (dare we say it) religious about the storage conditions under which such records are kept. Nevertheless, if you peek at our archives page, you can see that we are missing some records as recent as April 1999†. We've only been doing this for 11 years, and we've already lost some data. What if we had been doing it for 111 years? Would we still have complete archival records of our own information? We'd like to think that we would, but who can be sure?

The issue of long-term preservation of computer data is at the forefront of digital photography right now. Film might have its faults, but there are many examples of film, properly developed and properly stored, having lasted 100 years. Experts argue about the best techniques for preserving digital data, but only time will tell if they are right.

It's been our experience that most people don't even take the simple precautions that ensure their data will last through a disk failure, by making backup copies. It's rather pointless to offer advice on the best long-term care of your backup copies when you aren't actually making any. Nevertheless, we know that readers of Anglicans Online are all above average in intelligence and virtue, and are faithful about making periodic backup copies. So we shall offer you some advice.

We are actually trained experts in media retention and preservation methods. There's not enough space here to teach you what we know, but we think that if we tell you what we do, right now, to preserve our data, that it could be useful. Here is how we preserve our own electronic data for travel through time and space:

  • Automate. We don't rely on humans remembering to make backups. We automate everything. We also automate the monitoring of automated backups, so that if the backups should stop working for some reason, we will learn quickly and can do something about it. This requires that we leave our computers turned on all the time, but that hasn't been a major expense.
  • Replicate. We copy (automatically, of course) the backup data to more than one place. We keep copies in separate locations that are thousands of miles apart.
  • Diversify. Our primary backup media are standard computer hard drives, but we also make copies to archival DVD discs several times per year, and about once a year we physically remove the hard drives from our backup systems, label them carefully, wrap them in plastic bags, and put them in a safe place. (We then install fresh new hard drives, of course).
  • Notify. We tell several people where our archives are, and how to access them. In general these people have even never met one another, and are unlikely all to be killed in the same airplane crash.
  • Test. We don't know how to automate this. Every year on New Year's Day we test several of our backup and archive disks to make sure that they are still readable. Should we ever discover that they are not, we have an action plan, but so far these tests have all been successful.

We hope that the information that we gather and write is worth keeping. We think that we stand a pretty good chance that our heirs will be able to determine that for themselves.

See you next week. Online.

Anglicans Online
All of us here at Anglicans Online

Last updated: 14 September 2008

†We actually know just where those archives are. They are on DDS-3 tapes in Retrospect format, but we no longer have a working DDS-3 tape drive and haven't felt it was worth the considerable investment in money and time to buy one and use it to process those tapes.

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