Thursday, February 4, 2010

More about Personal Ancestral File and Backup

Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is one of the most widely used lineage-linked genealogical database programs. I have not been able to find any statistics on the number of actual users, but personal experience indicates that most of the genealogists who have a program at all are using PAF. Even if the genealogists have moved on to a commercially available program, it is possible that their attitudes concerning files may have been formed at the time they were using PAF. In one of my last posts, I discussed the issue of using the PAF "Backup" command. Since that post, I have had further rather extensive discussions on the subject, as well as comments, and I have a few more observations.

Ideally, the genealogical researcher should create one or more master files containing all of his or her research, including source citations and attached media, like photos and scans of original documents. There are many advantages to this "master" file system. All of the information is stored in one place and can be accessed and organized. The researcher never needs to worry about which of the files is the most current or the most complete. However, few of us can claim to have all of our files, photos, documents and memorabilia organized completely and it always seems that we have a file or two that is forgotten or lost which may or may not be a current duplicate of our master file. The more information we acquire, the harder it is to maintain complete and accurate files on the computer.

Assuming we have one or more master files, the overall concern and complication is the need to protect our files from loss or destruction. To do this, we should create copies of the files and put them on various disks and flash drives and in different physical locations, in the hope that one valid copy will survive any catastrophe. To make sure we are always working on the right file and that we have a valid backup, it is important to have a systematic way of backing up your files, that you can follow each time to avoid confusion.

Adding to the difficulty of having a backup copy of your master file, is the term "Backup" as it is used by the PAF program and many others. This term is ambiguous. Most people assume that a "Backup" is just that, a way of protecting your data from loss of the primary or master file. But what I find is that a large percentage of computer users have no idea what a file is or even the concept of backing up a file. In providing support to genealogists, it is common to find that the person has multiple copies both in .paf (or the file format for the program they are using) format and in .zip backup format. PAF is not the only program that makes "Backup" copies of the main data file. There is a backup function in both Ancestral Quest and RootMagic 4. Additionally, it is also common to discover that the computer user has no idea about the location of the files on their hard drive much less which one is the primary and which is the backup. Part of this problem occurs because of the Microsoft Windows default method of putting all data files into a "My Documents" file. Unfortunately, in the course of using the computer, several of these "My Documents" folders may be created. Since few of these files appear on the operating system's desktop view, they are often lost down someplace in the file structure. Most of the current genealogy programs also ask you to make a backup when you exit the program. But in each of these cases the "Backup" is merely another copy of the data file on the same disk.

In the case of PAF, (and most of the other programs) some of the confusion concerning the location of primary data files and backups can be remedied by using the preferences. The tab in the Preference menu asks for Folders and lets the user designate where data files and backup files (and other types also) will be stored. One problem with PAF (and other programs) is that attached files of digital media, such as photos, scans and other digital documents, are not automatically copied to the same folder or file as the data. So, if I make a "backup" of my main data file, even if I make the backup on a different disk, unless I am sophisticated enough to copy all of my digital files to the same backup location, I could lose all of my attached digital media.

Unfortunately, the concept of file location is greatly complicated by using so kind of external storage device, such as a flash drive or an external hard drive. Not only does the user have to keep track of where the original files are located, but also has to know that another copy of the file is located on the external device. Although a primary data file may not be very large in terms of storage space (Megabytes or Gigabytes) the attached digital files can be very large, making it impossible to use a device like a flash drive for a true backup.

Many of the issues and problems associated with multiple copies of files can be avoided or at least made less serious by properly naming files. Any file that is a "master" file or the main working file should be clearly named as such. All attached digital media should be kept in one identifiable file folder on the main computer hard drive and both the master file and the media folder should be kept in one master folder to facilitate the backup of all of the attached files. So, here is how it works:

When I name a new file in any of the genealogy programs, I make sure I identify it as my main or master file, perhaps even using either the word main or master in the file name. Then I go to the preferences in my program and set the location on my computer's hard disk for the default location for all of the types of files. You may have to look in the manual or help menu to find out how to do this with any particular program. When I have done any work on my master file that I am not willing to do over, I make a second copy of the file on an external disk, either a flash drive or an external hard drive. Periodically, I make additional copies of all of my data files onto either a CD, DVD, flash drive or external hard drive that I keep at another location, usually one of my childrens' homes in another state.

When I make a copy of my file to use at a remote location, like the Family History Library, I put a date in the file name. That way I know the date of the version of the file, just in case I enter some data and forget to look at the file for a while. If the date on my master file is newer than the date on my flash drive (or external hard drive) and I know there is information on the older file that I want to preserve, I use FamilyInsight for PAF or one of the other programs, like Ancestral Quest, RootsMagic or Legacy Family Tree to compare the two files to see if there is any information I want to move into my master file. In the event the file I put on the flash drive has a lot more information than the master file, plus all of the master file information. I rename my master file with a date included and copy the newer working file to my hard drive which then becomes my master file.

More later...

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