Genealogy research has changed dramatically in the last 16 or so years since the Web was born: we’re now able to search more records from our home computers, create electronic trees and post them to web sites, scan and post old photos to share with family members and more. But this has come at a price. Instead of our work becoming more durable, our increasing reliance on digitized documents has made everything more ephemeral than ever. This was never more clear to me than when I came back from a vacation last summer after working on some family history research. As I prepared to boot up my laptop to back everything up, nothing happened. After a week of attempting to wrest my data from a damaged hard drive I was forced to give it all up for lost and had to restore everything from a two-week-old backup. If it hasn’t happened to you yet you might be tempted to think “not me” but here are a few sobering statistics:

  • Computer hard drives are rated for 3-5 years MTBF (that’s Mean Time Before Failure). Unless you’re buying a new computer every 2-3 years and barring any rough treatment, sooner or later your drive WILL fail.
  • 6% of all PCs will suffer an episode of data loss in any given year. Given the number of PCs used in US businesses in 1998, that translates to approximately 4.6 million data loss episodes. The number is probably even higher today. [1]
  • 31% of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control (fire, flood, lightning, etc.) [2]
  • Simple drive recovery can cost upwards of $7,500 and success is not guaranteed.[2]

But you can take measures to protect your precious research. USB Flash Memory “thumb drives” are easy and portable, but impractical for large amounts of files. For relatively recent computers with a CD or DVD drive that can write (“burn”) as well as read disks, regularly writing a backup disk of your precious files is a must. This method is great for having an instant snapshot of your data that you can easily restore or move to another computer, but it can become tiresome.

I tried to stick to a schedule of backing things up every 2 weeks, or when I made a major addition to my genealogy files. In the case of my post-vacation disaster, it turned out that two weeks was not frequent enough — I lost everything I did while on vacation! It can also become an issue of space. Making backups on standard “write-once” optical disks like CD-R or DVD-R is relatively cheap, but even if you only fill one CD or DVD each time and back up once a week, where are you going to put 52 disks after a year? Or 104 disks after 2 years? My needs require at least 3 DVDs per complete backup cycle — 156 DVDs per year!!

Instead, I chose to use rewriteable optical disks. I now rotate between 2 backup sets with these DVD rewriteables: each time I back up I overwrite the oldest set and this ensures that if something happens to the most recent backup, I at least have another no more than 2 weeks old. It also puts less “wear and tear” on the rewriteable media since these do have a limited number of rewrites before they will need to be replaced.

So CD/DVDs are a good, solid backup plan, even if a little cumbersome depending on how often you back up and how large your file storage needs are. After my computer crash, and wanting something to supplement my disk media backups, to be a little more frequent, and less work for me, I began to ask myself “what else is there?” It turns out there are a surprising number of online services (both free and for a monthly fee) that will remotely back up your computer for you. Leave your computer on, log into the service with a password and it will back up the files you designate via your Internet connection. The beauty of this is the potential for much more frequent incremental backups which you can restore to any computer wherever you can access the Internet. Here’s a sampling of some of the major online backup services out there:

iBackup 5 GB, 15-day free trial
Mozy 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available
iDrive 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available

Check out this PC Magazine review of various services:,2817,2288745,00.asp or just Google “online backup” and you’ll see lots of options.

After some research and assessment of my storage needs, not the least of which was the desire for a 100% FREE solution, I settled on iDrive. It supports both Macintosh and PCs and provides handy software for connecting to the service and restoring your files should you need to. You can also easily set up automatic backups on a schedule. And best of all if you refer 10 of your friends to iDrive, they will bump up your free storage allotment from 2 Gigabytes to 12 Gigabytes. (Note: Your friends don’t need to join, you just enter their email addresses and iDrive sends them an invitation.) Once you use up your storage allotment either purchase more storage space or erase the online backup completely and start fresh. It is a good idea to permanently back up files that never change to CD/DVD and only use the online backup for files that change regularly.

If you share files with others regularly another service I’ve become fond of is DropBox. For free you can get 2 GB of live storage that behaves like another drive on your computer. Once installed, drop files into the Dropbox folder and it also copies them to the Dropbox server where they are backed up. You can also designate a shared folder and invite others to access it, creating a virtual shared hard drive you can access in real time. Very handy.

Ultimately you must decide for yourself how often and by what methods you back up those precious genealogy files, but for me maintaining a 1-2 week CD/DVD backup cycle along with a remote backup service every other night in case I slack off on the CD backups or they become damaged seemed about right. If none of this sounds workable for you however, there’s always the original low-tech backup method: paper. Just start saving up for that climate controlled, fireproof warehouse!

[1] “The Cost Of Lost Data,” David M. Smith. Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University. Accessed 3/29/2010.
[2] “Data Loss Statistics.” Boston Computing Network. Accessed 3/29/2010

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The New York Times ran an article this morning on how two research teams have independently decoded the entire genome of patients to find the exact genetic cause of their diseases. Despite the full human genome being sequenced a decade ago in the $10 Billion Human Genome Project, this is apparently the first time the genome for a sick patient has been recorded — and all for the “reasonable” cost of $50,000.

A new, more cost-effective process is planned to capture the genetic blueprint of 100 sick patients next year, is great news for those with rare genetic diseases and may help researchers understand more common ones like cancer but what does it mean for genealogy? Well the company using the new method, Complete Genomics in Mountainview, CA is expected to be able to do it for $25,000 each and is scaling up to be able to get the price down to $10,000 soon. The company’s chief exec Richard Reid even said “We are on our way to the $5,000 genome.” Five-thousand dollars is no chump change, but begins to be within reach for a lot more family historians who would like to look at their ancestral DNA in the way shown recently on the PBS program “Faces of America” with Henry Louis Gates. Using a full sequencing of his father’s genome and his own, geneticists (from 23andMe*) were able to “subtract” one from the other and show Dr. Gates the genes he inherited only from his mother. Very exciting stuff indeed!

Notes & Sources:
*Note: 23andMe does not seem to offer full genome sequencing but rather mDNA, yDNA and sequencing of 600,000 gene positions, apparently enough for the analysis shown in Faces of America

Nicholas Wade. “Disease Cause is Pinpointed with Genome.” New York Times. March 10, 2010
Image “Human Genome” via Wikimedia Commons. Revised from “Human Genome to Genes” by Webridge 3 August 2007 and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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