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Personal Archiving - Get your shit together

Image found on the web... I'm not sure who to thank

Obviously, many of you do not know about it, but just as in football, two minutes before you die, there is an audible warning:  "Two minutes, get your shit together" and the only reason we don't know about it is 'cause the only people who hear it...die! -  George Carlin


Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.


A college history class on Tudor England had us read the diary of a 16th century village priest. The priest wasn’t historically significant but he was literate, an anal-retentive diarist, and (this is the important part) his writings survived intact over 400 years. So, while it was interesting to read this detailed window into his life, we can’t be picky because there is so little source material to choose from.

Now look with pity at future generations studying our era. Unlike the lonely Tudor diarist, they’ll be awash in our electronic detritus. There will be so much informational clutter that it will require automated methods to make any sense of it. (Not to mention our physical detritus, a fact for which we should feel real shame. We are not the first generation to litter the earth, but we are among the first to grasp impacts of what we’re doing – but don’t stop doing it.)

Which brings me to my real point: if you want your life’s electronic foot print to have a long-term impact (if you want your kids and their kids to have access to your files and to know their own history, and yours) then you need to get your shit together! Because if you don’t get it organized, it’s unlikely anyone else will. 

Inheriting pictures used to mean a shoebox of photos that you could look through in an hour. But now you may have thousands of digital photos and many hours of movies.  Plus written documents, e-mail archives, and vast amounts of files that you may or may not need - or may not want your descendants to find.

If you don’t organize it before you go, then the best case scenario is that your personal archives will exist as a single package of clustered data. (Your life on a thumb drive!) But without organization it’s the digital equivalent of a storage shed stacked high with unlabeled boxes.  In the worst case, your files will be discarded with your old computer, or will vanish when your online accounts follow your lead and shuffle off this mortal coil.

This has been on my mind recently because after years of intending to (and by years, I literally mean… decades) I am finally converting several dozen cassette tapes to MP3 files.  In my case, these cassette tapes are the only copies I have of short-lived bands I liked in high school and college, my own college radio shows, and mix tapes that trace my tastes through the years. 

A moment of silence please for the mix tape. In the 80s (my mix tape heyday), these were carefully planned and lovingly recorded in a process that took many hours. That is why making a mix tape for someone was considered significant. Now you drag and drop a playlist in seconds. It’s a lot easier, but something is lost in the process.

At this point if you agree with my central thesis (i.e. you’re thinking “Gee, I should get my shit organized”), then here are some specific recommendations:


  • First, vet as you go. If you take advantage of digital to shoot lots of pictures (one of its huge benefits), then pare down constantly by deleting the ones you don’t need.
  • Centralize your storage. You probably have multiple devices that shoot photos. Pull those photos off that phone or camera as quickly as you can, and move them to a single place. Getting them off the device means you don’t lose them if you lose the device, too. Also it keeps your device from filling up. Fortunately, automated backups by Google & Apple make this so much easier than the old download methods.  So the overall recommendation is to sync your device to the cloud, then move files from default cloud location to a more organized set of folders. [Moving a file always has a slight risk of loss, so to be cautious during the transfer: 1) copy and paste files, 2) verify they were copied 3) delete the originals.]
  • Organize your long-term storage in a way that will make sense to other people. (Remember, you’re archiving for others!) I like to use a year/month folder structure for photos and videos. So I have a folder called “Photos” with years as sub-folders, then months as sub-folders within years Pro tip: put the month number at the beginning in a two-digit format (like “03 March 2015”) so that the months fall into the right order, and include the years in the folder name (yes, redundantly) so that they are there for searches and for clarity.
  • When my son was born, I learned quickly the importance of choosing “the best of the best” for pictures. You might shoot 40 pictures of them eating squash, but even grandparents only want to see the 3 best pictures out of the series. If you look within my monthly folders, you’ll see under each month there are two folders: “Keepers” and “Extras”. While I vet as I go (see rule #1), I still wind up with decent photos that aren’t worth sharing, but that I don’t want to delete. Those go in the “Extra” folder and then “Keepers” is what I share with people.
  • I’ve never stayed current on organizing photos, so the monthly structure is nice because it lets you stash the photos in a semi-organized way until you get time to organize them. (I move my files into the year/month structure immediately, then do the “Extra” vs. “Keepers” review later.) I’ve found that it’s best to set aside an hour or two and organize several months of photos at a time. Like anything else, you get in a groove and it starts speeding up.
  • I don’t take time to rename, tag, or otherwise modify photos at all – I just leave them with whatever they were originally named. My assumption is that face tagging and image analysis will improve in the future and we’ll be able to retroactively organize our photos automagically, so what’s the point in wasting time now?
  • Also, don’t resize your photos. In fact, you should generally take photos at the highest resolution possible, unless it will choke your device’s storage. (But remember… you’re moving them quickly off the device anyway). You can never improve the resolution of a picture, and storage is only getting cheaper.


Videos are pretty much the same as photos for me, with a few exceptions:

  • I’m much pickier about keeping video. While it’s nice to have some everyday footage from our lives, a little goes a long way.  I have a lot fewer “keepers” as a ratio to “extras”. Also, I don’t delete as much (even the “extras” can have some good parts), but I do delete misfires and videos that truly lack any redeeming moments.
  • Unlike photos, I do rename videos that are “keepers”, to give a better idea of what’s on it in case I want to find it later. I use long and explicit names, like "Reviewing Photos with Grandma 7_23_08".
  • With video, a little editing can help a lot. Got a 10-minute video from the school play? Cut out the boring parts or stitch multiple short videos together. Or take a lesson from Benny Hill: sped up video + music = comedy gold!


File storage

  • The main rule here is to centralize. Don’t have documents scattered in different online drives or in any of your "My Documents” - those are too easily left on a discarded machine. Create a main data directory and keep it all there. (Mine’s unimaginatively called “Data”.) This helps with backups, too, because you know where to focus.
  • I have separate directories for Music, Photos, and Video that are peers to "Data". This dates back to a time when I backed them up at different frequencies. Nowadays, I use an automated cloud sync and I don’t even think about it. (FYI - Backblaze, and I recommend it)  So you can boil it down to one directory if you want to.
  • At that point, it’s all about a folder structure that will make sense… to someone else! And stay on top of the folders, and groom them constantly. Some of my main folders are transitory (e.g. I have one now related to my search for a car), and others are permanent, like my “Taxes” folder, which has sub-folders for each year.


These are probably the toughest of all to archive. My take on this is skewed because I used to be a letter-writer, and I saved all of the mail I received. Through high school and college, I corresponded with a number of people (usually female), because I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and I was either romantically interested in someone or because it could keep those amorous embers glowing for rekindling later. (Sorry, Elizabeth, just being honest!)

That all came to a screeching halt in the mid 90s with e-mail, and I don’t think I’ve hand-written any mail longer than a birthday card in years. For me, typing e-mails simply replaced letter-writing, with a bonus: I can keep a copy of my sent letters, too.   So, now I keep personal e-mails to and from important people in the way I still have their paper letters.   Worth noting also: I no longer e-mail romantically (my wife would be the first to agree with this!), but I can’t blame that on technology; that’s more about being 46 and not 16.

The main problem with e-mails is managing your history of them. Often, they reside in a proprietary format (more true in the early days of e-mail, but still true of Outlook and its ilk) or they may only exist online, and there may come a day when you want to terminate an e-mail account. (I’m going through this right now as I shut down my Yahoo! address – I’ve lost confidence in them.)

So for many reasons, it makes sense to save important e-mails as files outside of the e-mail program.

  • My e-mail archiving process begins with an e-mail folder mail named “Letters to Save” for personal e-mails that I want to archive. This is separate from my other folders, which are focused on more mundane current tasks. In case you couldn’t guess, I organize my e-mail into precise folders. I won’t dwell on that except to say that I’ve learned that a structure that essentially mirrors my “Data” folders works the best. 
  • The hardest part is extracting e-mails to a good long-term storage format. I use the rich text format (rtf) for saved e-mails. Historically, e-mails were plain text anyway, and rich text format stores any basic formatting. Plus rtf is a file type that almost any computer can handle.  However, if you need to capture an e-mail’s pictures or graphics, then I recommend saving it to a PDF - although make sure you create the PDFs with searchable text!
  • Saving the e-mails as separate files can be a bit of a hassle. In the early days of e-mail, I did this manually - cutting and pasting each one. Then I fell off the wagon for a years (and again by years I mean… decades), and now I have hundreds of e-mails to save.
  • The best bulk solution I’ve found is a macro in Outlook that I borrowed from the internet, and modified. The bad news is that ALL text is saved, but it’s fast and easy. You have some flexibility on saved file names. My current version (see below) has a verbose filename, like this: “Re_ Hotels for your stay-20070821-003047-to Sanford Hess-from” The numbers in the middle are the date and time , and the last part is the sender’s e-mail. Here's a file with the script I'm using:
  • If you've got a better solution, PLEASE SHARE IT in the comments!
  • Once I finally have my files saved, I put them in a folder structure by year.

Audio Tapes:

Since I teased this up front, here’s what I’m doing – although it’s too complex to fully describe without boring some people to tears. If you want more details, contact me! But here are the basics:

  • First, you need a good tape player. You can get them at yard sales or on eBay. Ideally, get one with various kinds of noise reduction and an output knob. And clean the heads with rubbing alcohol before you start, and after every few tapes.
  • Next, you need a connector that accepts the sound coming out of the cassette player and passes it to the computer. If you’re using older cassette players, these are generally RCA cables (Red and White). Here’s the one I bought:|en)
  • Separate devices are recommended for the past two steps, because you'll get better quality. But if you want to do it easy then there are one-step player/output devices:
  • Now you plug the cords in from the player to the audio interface, and then to your computer. 
  • Now comes the hard part: configuring the sound to be a recognized input. This will vary based on your computer and the tools that you use. (Sorry, that's as much general advice as I can give here!)
  • Finally, you’ll use software to capture the audio. I’ve been using Audacity and it’s pretty good (and it’s free). It has some nice features I use with my old tapes, including noise removal and the ability to split the file up into tracks.
  • Once I have the file ready, I save it to one or more mp3 files (splitting it by track if it's a band, or as one big file with my radio shows). Then, I save it again as a .wav file for long-term storage - because it's uncompressed.

Well, that's it! Hope it was helpful. Now go get your shit together!

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