Is Your Genealogy Data Safe?

Blue Screen Of DeathIf you’re anything like me a lot of your genealogy research will be stored on a computer. Scanned and downloaded images, photos and PDFs of documents and certificates, notes and your family tree software data which represent hours, days, weeks, months or years of your research time.

Unfortunately computers can suffer failures and events such as mechanical or electronic failure, power surges, viruses or plain old user error can result in all your data being lost in the blink of an eye. Even if you have paper copies of all your research losing your genealogy computer data can be a great loss and mean having to re-input a lot of information.

Working in IT, this is a situation I’ve come across far too often. Many people only think about backing up their data once they’ve suffered a data loss and that, sadly, is often too late and their data is lost forever.

So whether it’s your genealogy research or other files such as digital photos, personal documents there are several points to consider to protect your data. No computer will last forever – it’s not a question of if it fails, it’s a question of when it fails so be prepared and ensure you have sufficient backup procedures in place for when it happens.

Backup principles

A backup is an additional copy of your primary data!

First let’s get one thing clear – a backup is a copy of your data and is only a backup for as long as the original primary copy of the data exists. I’ve seen too many people copy their data to an external hard disk or memory stick and then delete the original copy as they consider their data is safe because it’s on their ‘backup’ disk.

If your data only exists in one place then you do not have a backup! If you copy your data to a backup device and then delete the original then your backup becomes your primary copy, and you don’t have a backup as your data only exists in one place and if that copy is lost you’re up the creek!

All your eggs in one basket?

Your backup data must exist on more than one storage device. Keeping your backups on the same hard disk as your primary data won’t help you if that hard disk dies or becomes corrupt or your computer gets struck by a power surge. This means having at least one copy of your data on an external hard disk, CD, DVD, memory stick or other storage medium. You could have a second internal hard disk in your computer but that could be subject to any system-wide failures that computer suffers.

It is also worth considering the reliability of your backup medium. External hard disks can suffer the same failures as internal hard disks. Memory sticks and solid state drives have limited life-spans and wear out eventually. CDs and DVDs can be scratched and damaged. All these points must be kept in mind if relying on anything as your main backup copy.

Another problem is long term storage. A hard disk locked away securely in a safe might seize up and if the data on magnetic media¬† isn’t refreshed then it can degrade over time and become unreadable. Writable CDs and DVDs in relative terms have not been around very long so again relying solely on them may not be wise. It’s a good idea to check your backups regularly and renew your backup medium as they get old. Remember to consider technological obsolescence too – if all your data was on 5.25 inch floppy disks you’d struggle to find anything to read those disks today!


Always hope for the best but plan for the worst! I’d advise that you keep at least one backup of your data in a different geographical location. Catastrophic events such as fires, floods and lightning strikes could destroy your primary data and any backups you have. It’s therefore essential to have an off-site backup, whether this is a memory stick you leave at a friend’s or relative’s house or on an online storage service.


One thing that also catches out a lot of people is that they might keep backup copies of their data but they don’t have multiple revisions of their backups. Take this situation as an example: Jane is writing a 30,000 word report on her family history. Her PC automatically does a backup of her document every evening. One morning however she opens up her document and realises she’d accidentally deleted several chapters the previous day. Unfortunately her backup routine ran yesterday evening so the only backup copies of her document are also missing those chapters!

You have to consider then whether you need to keep multiple revisions of your data so you can restore back to an earlier point in time than just your last backup. Likewise if your backup routine syncronises a folder on your PC to a USB memory stick and you delete a file on the PC do you want that file deleting from your backup? What if you deleted it from the PC accidentally?

Fortunately most backup software and some online services allows you to create multiple revisions of your backup rather than overwriting the same backup every time but it is something to keep in mind and does consume more backup space.


In summary I’d recommend as a minimum you have at least three copies of your data (the primary data and 2 backups) on 3 different storage mediums and in at least 2 locations. In reality this isn’t actually that hard to do these days. There are many online services around that offer free storage space (you can pay for extra space or get more free space usually by referring a friend) and different options in their software client to backup your data so if you’re paranoid you could even use more than one online service. Many of us use more than one computer now too so these online services can sync your data between your computers also.

If you keep one set of backups on an external hard disk or memory stick and one on an online service you’re pretty well covered – just remember you can never have too many backups though and review your backup procedures regularly and check they’re still working.


Check out the resources below and if you’re confused about how to back up or have your own backup routines please let me know by leaving a comment.



Backup Software

  • Easeus Todo Backup – Free all in one backup system & disaster recovery software.
  • Syncback – Free and paid versions to backup and sync files to different drives, mediums or servers.
  • Areca Backup – Open source backup solutions.
  • Cobian Backup – Free versatile backup software.


Online Backup/Storage Services

  • SpiderOak – 2GB of free storage space and backup, sync and sharing access.
  • SugarSync – 5GB of free storage space with backup, sync and sharing options and versioning.
  • Dropbox – 2Gb of free storage space with syncing, sharing¬† and versioning.
  • Wuala – 2GB of free storage with backup, sharing and syncing options and encrypted data storage.
  • Carbonite – Paid unlimited backup storage with versioning.

*Disclaimer: By signing up through some of the links above I may receive additional free space or rebates on my own backup storage – if I do thanks in advance!


In my next blog post I’m going to examine keeping your personal data private in case of theft or loss.

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