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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Digital Historian Series: Using Digital Tools for Archival Research: Backup

This guide is for scholars interested in using digital photography in their archival research.

Keep Original Copy

Good practice would be to rename the files or organize into folders before making any other changes to the image (such as manipulating via Photoshop or like software to make the image more clear). When you have your images named or foldered, save a copy (before any edits) in a folder called “original” or something that designates them to be unedited. Make any edits to a different copy of the images. Thus, when/if you accidentally ruin or delete an image, you’ve got an original backup.

Keep Multiple Copies

Never ever rely on just one copy of your images. No matter if you are a Mac user or a PC user, buy an external hard drive. Keep a backup of your images (and your research) there as well as a copy on your main computer. Always have at least two copies, preferably three. You’ll thank us when something horrible happens.

There are programs that will automate backups of your data:

  • Mac users can use a program called Time Machine to backup their information.
  • Windows users can use various programs, including one called SyncBack SE.

Online Storage

Consider using Internet storage, such as a web server, like Illinois Box. There are several companies that offer online storage; research on the Internet to find the right solution for you. For organizing and keeping an online backup of your notes and references, you may consider using Zotero.

Benefits of online storage:

  1. Your data is accessible anywhere
  2. Most online storage offers data encryption, for safety
  3. Your data is stored "offsite", meaning if there is a fire or other natural disaster, or your PC is infected with a virus, you have a safe, unharmed backup.


  • Online storage can be expensive depending on how much space you need


Storage with Other Media

There are several other places you can save your data instead of online storage, an additional hard drive, or an external hard drive. The following are removable media options.

USB Drives

These handy little portable devices are becoming less expensive as time goes on, and provide a portable alternative to data storage. They come in various sizes, both in terms of physical size and storage capability. Some are available to rent from the Undergraduate Library, or can be purchased through the University of Illinois webstore, any computer store, Costco, Walmart, or online retailers like Newegg or Tiger Direct. They are re-writable and small, and compatible with nearly any computer.

Note: When you've finished using your USB flash drive, it is generally recommended that you should first of all click on the "Safely Remove Hardware" icon that appears in the System Tray in the bottom right of your computer's Task Bar before unplugging the drive. If you unplug the drive while the computer is in the middle of updating a file, you may end up with a corrupted file or you might end up with an entire corrupted flash drive.


CD or DVD backups are not as reliable as an external hard drive or online storage, but are better than nothing. The discs are somewhat fragile and will go bad over time. One benefit is that you can make several backups and store them elsewhere, such as a safety deposit box, providing additional protection in the case of fire or other natural disaster.

To make CDs or DVDs, you must have a computer equipped with a CD or DVD burner. These are relatively inexpensive, and most computers made in the past few years should have one or the other. All University of Illinois library public computers are equipped with CD and DVD burners.


The "R" stands for "recordable", and the "RW" stands for "rewritable". CDs can hold up to 700MB, and unlike CD-R, CD-RW discs can be re-recorded. To use CD-RW, you must have a burner that is compatible; all University of Illinois library public computers have CD-RW drives, so you can use either format. If you are using your own burner, look at the logo on the burner to determine if you can use CD-RW discs. It will look like this if you can, otherwise you can only use CD-R discs, indicated by this logo.


Again, the "R" stands for "recordable", and the "RW" stands for "rewritable". DVDs generally can hold 4.7GB. The +, - or ± indicate different formats of discs. Some DVD burners are "hybrid" meaning they can burn both + or - discs, which is indicated by the symbol '±'. As with CD-RW, the burner must be compatible; to determine what sort of discs to buy, look at the front of your CD or DVD burner drive. It will have logos on it.. If the logo has a +, you need to buy DVD+R discs; if the logo has a -, you need to have DVD-R discs. If it has DVD + or - RW, than either R or RW discs will work.

For more information about the different DVD formats, go here.

CD or DVD Brands

It doesn't really matter what brand of disc you buy, they all are about the same performance-wise, though there are some very brand-loyal people who might tell you otherwise. Generally the more you purchase, the cheaper per disc it will cost.


To burn data to your CD or DVDs, you will need some sort of software. The University of Illinois Library computers use Nero Express, but there should be some sort of software included with your burner or computer. Mac users can use iDVD, which is part of the iLife suite.

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