Updated on 10.27.07

Preserving The Things That Money Can’t Buy

Trent Hamm

A few days ago, I bought an external hard drive and started the process of archiving a lot of items that basically would be irreplaceable. I’ve started making high-resolution scans of old family pictures, personal documents, and so on, and saving digital copies of videos as well. Eventually, I plan to take this drive, encrypt the entire thing, and place it in a safe deposit box.

It’s slow, time consuming, and, frankly, often boring (put the picture on the scanner, hit scan, take the picture off the scanner, file it appropriately, repeat…). Given that, there are several reasons I’m doing it.

First, going through these photos and videos is personally meaningful. They are visual reminders of people who have passed on – pictures of my grandparents and uncles and other ancestors, friends, and family members. As I go through them, a lot of memories have floated through my mind – I’ve laughed and cried while doing this many times.

Second, having a permanent archive of these items is very personally valuable. If something devastating happened to my home, this drive will be the record of all of those missing items.

Third, properly annotating the images enables the memories to be passed on to my children easily. I’m tagging the pictures as I go along, also often annotating images with appropriate stories and such by making up Word documents and saving them to the drive as well. I add in the images, write the annotations, and save the document, too.

Finally, sharing these memories with my family creates a new level of closeness. My wife is learning a lot about my family, from my ancestors to the people that she knows well. My own memory is brimming with things to tell her, and she can see the passion I feel about some of those memories. I can laugh about these memories with her, and she can put her arm around me when I tell a sad tale.

Even better: aside from the initial cost of the drive, this project is an extremely inexpensive and personally fulfilling way to fill the hours. It doesn’t cost much at all to look at old pictures, think about great family memories, write about the ones that I want to tell my children about someday, and move on to the next one.

To me, my computer and my scanner are providing a way for me to preserve the memories I hold most dear for only the smallest of costs. It takes time, but that’s time that’s spent in a deeply fulfilling way without the need to lay out a great deal of money. Even better, it’s something that’s (hopefully) personally valuable that I can pass on to my children.

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  1. Ryan says:

    Excellent post! And good work! In the end, doing something like this is about a billion times better than scanning the personal finance blogosphere.

    Most people don’t know the first names of their direct relatives about their great grandparents. Much of what we do–whether we’re obsessed with money or not–will be quickly forgotten. Preserving memories, then, is extremely important!

  2. Laura says:

    I feel the same way about the photos of my grandmother. We were very close and these photos are a physical reminder of her.

  3. J. says:

    just be aware that hard drives don’t live forever. in fact, one of the guys who knows what he’s talking about over at ZDnet/news.com has suggested that you should expect the average hard drive to fail within 3-5 years, whether it’s running or not. good reason to consider some sort of internet-based storage, esp. if the data is sentimental to you but not sensitive enough to worry about handing over to someone else. they have the scale to do triple-redundancy, etc. & make it cost effective.

  4. paul says:

    As an internet backup solution I’d suggest Jungledisk/Amazon S3.


    Jungledisk provides the interface and the data is stored on Amazon’s servers. I’ve been using it for a while now with no major problems.

  5. ron says:

    Trent– I’ve been thinking about doing this too and recently heard about ScanCafe, a service that scans your photos for 19 cents per negative. I haven’t used it but this is the review that is making me consider them:


  6. Lauren says:

    I second J. I bought a 100 gb hard drive for exactly that purpose and it crashed within 6 months. 1 month after that, before I had a chance to back everything up again, my computer which held the really important things crashed. Now, it’s all gone.

  7. Lauren says:

    I second J. I bought a 100 gb hard drive for exactly that purpose and it crashed within 6 months. 1 month after that, before I had a chance to back everything up again, my computer which held the really important things crashed. Now, it’s all gone.

    I work for a guy now in New Orleans who provides off site tripe backed storage and indexing of these types of things, and after Katrina…people are flocking to this. It’s worth it, too.

  8. Tommy says:

    Another thing you might want to be aware of is what format you save the stuff in. Trent mentioned Word. That is a bad idea – 15 years from now you may not be able to open it, even if word is still around.

  9. Brucemagnus says:

    Make sure to save everything in an open data format. MS Word 2017 might not be able to read current .doc files. However, PDF, rtf, txt, and odt are more likely to be future-proof. If not, the source/binaries for programs like OpenOffice Writer is available so it would be fairly easy to recompile or reinstall and have access to your old files again.

  10. DJ says:

    This is a good idea. I live in San Diego, where all the fires have been all week, and as I was preparing to evacuate I just thought about how many photos there are around the house. I wish I had all of them on CDs or a hard drive instead of having to run around gathering massive photo albums.

  11. Michelle says:

    I second DJ. We had to evacuate too, and we had to go so fast that we barely had time to grab some clothes and our vital documents (we keep these all in one folder so it was easy to grab). Luckily our house is safe, but if it had burned we would have lost everything sentimental. So, having it backed up on anything is a good idea, especcially something you can put in a secure place.

  12. Sarah says:

    I second J’s comment re: life expectancy of the hard drives. I had to use external hard drives for storage of data in my job. They’re great and save tons of space, but they don’t last forever.

  13. t says:

    @J.: YES! I second, third, and fourth that comment!!

  14. George says:

    I’ve been using the online backup service Mozy (www.mozy.com) for the past year, and it’s excellent. It encrypts everything before backing it up, and it automatically backs up anything new that shows up on your hard drive (i.e. newly scanned photos, word documents, etc).

    The reason I’m happy with it as a backup service is that it’s completely, totally automated. Once you set it up, it backs everything up in the background. The initial backup takes a long time (at least a few days) but after that it only backs up new or changed files. There is a huge peace-of-mind factor involved in having backups automated.

    And, it’s cheaper than buying an external hard drive and needing to constantly update your backups every time you add something new.

  15. James says:

    You really ought to consider a Flickr account – $24 a year gets you unlimited uploading. You can mark photos public or private, tag them, make comments on them, etc. And since they’re now owned by Yahoo, I feel pretty secure that they’ll be around for a while.

  16. Bill says:

    I’d recommend optical storage (CD or DVD) over magnetic storage (hard drives).

    Pick a safe deposit box at ground level (not basement), as high as you can reach.

    Because vaults aren’t water-tight, and neither is your safe deposit box.

  17. Stephan F- says:

    Please, Get those memories recorded somehow.

    My sister and I were just talking about this today. She is trying to gather pictures and stories and is having some success. But most of the women of the family are “too busy” to write down what happened to them. One uncle has written two biographies and only mentions his wife 4 times and only one of his three children in them.

    She found a genealogy in the back of an old photo album of our mom’s, it included two sets of twins that had died that we knew nothing about. They had been the eldest and the family didn’t talk about them. She is also trying to label the photo’s while someone still knows who they are.

    They have recorded some stories using a digital camera with recording features but I am suggesting taking a digital voice recorder to the next family reunion and just leaving it on as they tell stories and get them transcribed.

    She intended to send a copy to all her kids when it is done but I told her it is better to get what you have out there in case something happens.

    I also happened to run across this today too on the exact same topic.

    Keep the source files as simple as possible: text and jpg, Sure, go ahead and make a nice little compilation piece in word or something for everyone but save it as pdf too.

    Optical storage has the shortest lifespan right now but is easy to send to family via mail, send them new copies every year for Christmas and that will be good.

    Flash drives have the lifespan right now, up to 100 years, they said that about CD/DVD but they are not archive quality at all, they are only good for a few years. I have floppies that have lasted longer. all this means to me that you need to use more then one technology to save stuff. And migrate often. It also means that paper and film still have a place.

  18. Antares says:

    I second James’ recommendation for Flickr. After having spent $600 last year to have info on a dead hard drive recovered, I’m fanatical about backups and having things in a safe place. Flickr’s great for keeping the photos; who can see them is customizable; and it makes it easy to share them with others. Also ditto the recommendations for replacing your backup drive every 3 years.

    You have a great thing going here: thanks so much for putting forth the effort for the rest of us!

  19. ScottMGS says:

    I should do this, too. I think, though, that I would not encrypt the data for things like pictures. Let everyone down the line have access to them. One lost password and the harddrive is just taking up valuable space in the box.

  20. KCLau says:

    I’ve done that before my wedding as a preparation for the slideshow during the wedding dinner

  21. Susy says:

    Taking high resolution digital photos of your old photos is actually faster and better! You have to set up the light & the angle of the photo just right, but once you have it set up it takes seconds per photo. Much faster than scanning. I did this with all of my photos. I keep a DVD of them and I keep them on my hard drive and a copy on my mom’s hard drive and she has a DVD copy as well. I know I should always be able to get a copy if I lose them!

  22. Mike says:

    I’m in the middle of that same process.

    Don’t forget to talk to other relatives, especially older ones. They may well have photo’s and information not in your mind. I was able to find video footage of my Great Grandfathers funeral, complete with footage of a lot of now deceased relatives AND my parents and my self in 1960.

    Two other tricks to add.

    1 try and name the images with as much information as possible in case they get separated from the text file. Most modern OSes will allow very long file names.

    2 Look into using IPTC data to make your comments. Basically it’s a hidden “layer” in your image that allows you to put keywords, photographer info etc. It’s pretty much a standard on the professional level and more than likely will be there for some time to come. There’s even freeware out there to access it.

  23. Josh says:


    As all these other folks have said, hard disks are not 100% reliable. Having only a single copy of this stuff is a Bad Idea unless you’re going to pony up the cash for a technical solution protects you from the failure of a single drive. (Best of all, a failing disk may begin to silently corrupt its contents, but still appear to work–at least until you come across one of the files that have been mangled.)

    For most people, it would be more cost effective (and safer) to make use of an online backup service, in which case your files will be safely stored on fault-tolerant hardware.

    Of course, you could also archived to DVD (or, if you can afford the premium price, Blue-ray). The advantage here is that individual discs are relatively cheap and can be mailed to relatives, giving you off-site backups in case some really bad happens. Just keep in mind that you get what you pay for (cheap discs can be flaky) and that DVDs/BRDs don’t last forever, either, so you’d need to make a fresh copy of everything every few years.

  24. Tordr says:

    I would agree with the other commenter’s to get double or triple backups, but I will start by focus on your statement “Eventually, I plan to take this drive, encrypt the entire thing, and place it in a safe deposit box.”

    My reaction is do not encrypt. If it is safe in a safe deposit box there is no need to encrypt it. Some years from now, the encryption program might not be around any more, or if something really bad happens, then you might not be around to tell the password to someone and then all the memories are lost.

    If you leave one backup in your house, you might want to encrypt parts of that one. Lets say you are afraid that burglars will find your financial statements, then it is good to encrypt that part of the hard drive, but if you leave the same files on your computer and the burglars take both, then you encrypting your backup makes no sense.

    I would go for the following, active files on the computer, and one primary backup, maybe a secondary backup in a safe, then burning DVD’s and giving them to relatives at regular intervals.

    As for me with 3 computers, no central backup big enough to store all my files, I have a backup solution, but it is in no way foolproof. I would need to have a distributed version control system.

  25. Adam says:

    Yet another IT professional chiming in here – CDs/DVDs do have a shelf life and are not necesarily suited for long-term storage. Hard-drives can be useful, but are not ideal. I would have to agree with Stephan and invest in a few high capacity flash drives (they have them in many different sizes) and store the files as other commentators have mentioned (e.g. “.txt”, “.pdf”, “.jpg”, etc.)

    One important caveat, be sure to “energize” your flash or hard-drive every so often. What I mean by that is to actually connect it to power via your PC. This is why data corrupts or the drive loses it’s contents. Memory is just electronic circuitry and does, from time to time, require electricity to pass through those circuits in order to keep those little electrons charged properly. So I would recommend using flash drives and making a trip to the safe deposit box once or twice a year with your laptop to plug the flash drive in and refresh the contents. If a file isn’t accessed for a long time, it will fade away. Good luck!

  26. Wendy says:

    I haven’t read all the posts, so my apologies if others have brought this up:

    ******If you are not going to TEST YOUR BACKUPS on a regular basis, do not waste your time making them.*******

    This has been a problem at work a number of times, and people still don’t seem to understand how necessary this step can be. If you spend 2 weeks gathering and processing your data, it is useless if you don’t take it out and make sure it is in good shape every so often.

    Regarding the comments about LA, I now have the incentive I needed to spend the extra money on a fireproof safe.

  27. Eric says:

    One word: Mozy.

    I spent a month looking at all backup options available, both online and offline, and Mozy ended up being the best (both in price and data safety).

    Don’t trust optical media or hard drives. They’ll fail, sooner or later.

  28. Tom Purl says:

    If you’re backing up more than a couple of gigs’ worth of data, then it is a good idea to use a local, magnetic disk. It’s the cheapest and easiest option for backing up and restoring data. Ease-of-use is important when you first start backing up your computer because everyone’s process is unique, and there can be a lot of trial-and-error.

    Having said that, sooner or later, you should consider an offsite backup *in addition to* your local backup. This is cheaper than a safe deposit box, and you’re much more likely to keep good backups since you don’t have to bring your hard drive home to do a backup. There are a lot of cheap and easy options for this that are mentioned above (such as Jungle Disk, etc.), and you could use a free tool such as SyncBack to handle scheduling and encryption.

    Here’s a few more things that I’ve learned about home backups:

    0. Don’t rely on a remote backup only. The “closer” a backup is to your computer, the more likely it is to be restorable. Remote backups should be used only if your local backup doesn’t work.
    1. Make all backups (both local and remote) as automatic as possible. The more human intervention that your process requires, the less likely you are to actually execute the process.
    2. Backing up to optical media (like CD’s and DVD’s) is not only labor-intensive, it’s more expensive than a hard disk in the long run. Also, hard disks failures are easier to detect than DVD block failures. If your hard disk fails, you’ll know the next time you do a backup. If a DVD starts to degrade, you won’t know that you’re data’s gone until you need it.
    3. Always, always, always encrypt your backup before you store it remotely. Don’t trust your remote storage provider to encrypt or obfuscate it for you. SyncBack has encryption functionality built-in, and a lot of other free and inexpensive programs can also do this.
    4. I don’t personally encrypt my local backup, because I want restorations to be as easy as possible. Some encryption schemes require a “private key”, and if that’s only stored on your computer, and you lose that drive, __you__ __are__ __screwed__.
    5. If you do lose any data (baby pictures, old tax documents, etc.), then it can probably be restored by some companies that specialize in this sort of thing. Please keep in mind, however, that this service is pretty expensive. It’s much cheaper to come up with a decent backup process like Trent.
    6. To save money, backup all of your data locally (movies, music, pictures, docs, etc.), but only backup your highly-important data remotely. Backing up 1 GB remotely is much more expensive than backing it up locally on a disk. Personally, I backup around 120 GB of data locally (*everything*, including lots of mp3’s and avi’s) and 7 GB remotely (docs, images, code, and other stuff I can’t live without).

    Keep up the good work!

    Tom Purl

  29. Richard says:

    I have a great list on my website on how you can improve the safety and speed of your computer, check it out.
    Twelve ways to keep your computer running safer and faster

    One of my favorite tips in that report is how saving your files on a back up hard drive can save you countless hours and many headaches if your hard drive crashes and you lose all your files.

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