Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moving or backing up your genealogy files -- Part Two

Another common mistake made by genealogists when backing up their files is to rely on the "Back Up" command in some of the more common database programs. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is a prime example of this problem, though it is certainly not the only program out there with this type of problem. The problem occurs as a result of the "Back Up" command prominently appearing in the File Menu selections. People are told to "back up" their files and they automatically think that by choosing that menu option they are doing what is intended. The problem arises because the command usually creates a compressed copy of the data file and then stores that file in some default location on the computer's main hard drive. So I constantly see PAF backup files appearing in the same file folder with the copy of the un-compressed program file and all of the other files loaded by PAF.

If you backup a file to the original storage device, you do not have a backup, just another copy of the data file on the main hard disk of the computer. If the computer were to crash or hard drive fail, that so-called backup file would be lost along with the other files on the computer. A backup is not really a backup unless it resides on a storage device that is not the original computer. So, for example, you would need to tell the program to make the backup on an external hard drive, a CD or DVD, a flash drive or some online storage account.

The irony of this situation is that the programs, including PAF, provide a preferences selection to indicate to the program where you would like your backup to be made. As long as you have an external hard drive or some other similar device attached to your computer, you can choose to have backups go to the external hard drive.

Particularly with PAF, there is another problem. The so-called backup is a compressed file. Commonly, PAF, in the last versions released, used Windows Zip or WinZip to create this compressed file. Frequently, people come to me to try to recover their old PAF files from a floppy disk or other media and we find out that the file is really a backup. The problem of restoring a file from an old floppy disk is further compounded by trying to find a program that will un-zip or decompress the file. This becomes a bigger problem because I am usually trying to solve this issue at the Mesa FamilySearch Library where the computers are not loaded with utility programs. There will come a day when these old PAF files will not be able to be resurrected.

Now we are back to the original issue, moving files from folder to folder and from device to device. With today's graphic interfaces, it is common to just tell people to "drag the file icon from the original folder to a folder on the target device." Unfortunately, with the proliferation of programs and devices, such as tablet computers, these instructions are not really useful. For example, if I want to keep a copy of my database on my smartphone or tablet, I may have to go through a series of specific steps to transfer a file from my desktop computer to the selected device and these steps may be different for each type of program and/or device you are using.

The genesis of this issue as a problem lies in the inability of computer users to visualize the reality of their files and realize that moving a file is very similar to moving a physical object. You actually have to move the data from one device or folder to another. This can be done by copying the file using series of commands or by dragging an icon of the file onto another icon representing the external device or folder. How this process occurs depends on the operating system you are using. There is no simple solution, you have to learn how to perform this process on your computer, using your operating system and your genealogical files. You may have to have someone help you until you learn how the process is done.

The impact of not learning how to backup your files or more fundamentally, how to move them from folder to folder or from device to device can have very serious consequences. You may lose your data entered into the program entirely.

Here are a YouTube video on the subject:

You might also want to see The Senior's Guide to Computers.


  1. One way to get around not having the utilities you might need (e.g., something to unzip a compressed file) when using a FamilySearch Library computer is to have a flash drive with the apps you need on it. There are "portable" versions of many apps. Here's 7-zip (a very nice program for dealing with zipped files):

  2. This is very informative, James. But with modern technology, there are a lot more options that are made available to us that's a lot easier to use, like cloud storage. With the right equipment and internet connection, everything will work nicely.

    --> Ruby @

    1. Hi, you might want to read my later blog post on the subject