What will you do when your computer crashes?

The longer you work with and read about computers, the more horror stories you read about what went wrong. Whether there is a happy end to the story or not depends on whether the owner of the computer backs up their data and how regularly they do it.

Here’s my story. This happened late last week. My laptop is almost three years old, so it’s getting on for a laptop. Laptops are different from desktops, they are built to be small, not to last. This laptop pretty well contains my life – my business, my family history, my photos, my university notes, everything.

On Thursday night I had finished creating the handouts for a workshop I was giving the next day and I had printed them out so that I could check them and write notes on them. I hadn’t yet copied them to my flash drive because I wanted to check them first. I was answering an email in Outlook, using Word, when there was a sudden and subliminal blue screen of death and then the laptop restarted itself. That’s weird, I thought, and waited for the restart, which seems to be a lot slower these days than when the laptop was new.

The restart gave me a screen I’d never seen before. I don’t remember the exact words any more but it said something along the lines of “your computer failed. If the failure was not the result of new software do this, otherwise do that”. It also offered the Safe Mode option. Well, I hadn’t installed anything new lately so I chose the “go back to the last safe configuration” option.

It got stuck on a blue screen of death, which I imagine was the same one that flashed at me before the restart. My registry was corrupted or missing. Missing! How could it be missing?

I tried the whole process again with the “just start up as normal” option and got the same result. I tried the “old configuration” option again. How often do we do that – do the same thing again hoping for a different result? Well, I got what I should have expected.

When I tried the next time I went into Safe Mode. I’m not entirely sure what Safe Mode means but it sounded comforting. Everything worked fine and it started up fairly normally. The first thing I did was to copy my handouts for the next day on my flash drive. Then I printed them all out again in case I couldn’t print them at the Society from the flash drive and had to photocopy them.

I then went to look at Outlook. Outlook wouldn’t open – my mail file was gone. Missing. Disappeared. It was quite a large file, as you’ll know if you’ve had yours for a while and you’ve been able to find it. It had years and years of emails in there, from family, friends, clients, the lot. Gone.

I had a backup on the laptop hard drive that was at least a year old. No good.

This is where the happiness of the outcome of the story is dependent on whether I had a backup and how old it was. I’m happy to say that my last backup was that morning and I was able to get my mail file back.

I have struggled with the backup question for years. I’ve tried CDs and flash drives (too much hassle to remember to do it) and backing up over the wireless network to the desktop. We bought a portable hard drive when my laptop hard drive was running out of space a few months ago with all the photos and music it had on it, but it doesn’t get used regularly for backups.

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I use an online backup service called Mozy, recommended by that prince among men, Dick Eastman on his blog. The backing up occurs at a schedule to suit me on the files and directories that I specify, without me having to do anything. That’s the crucial thing, for me. I don’t have to remember to do it and go looking for the media. It happens automatically. I’ve tested the restore part in the past when I stuffed up a database and it works just fine.

So I checked and sure enough, there was my Outlook mail file on the Mozy server, all 431MB of it. I clicked on restore and went to bed.

Unfortunately when I eagerly checked the next morning my mail file wasn’t restored – Mozy had lost the connection. It’s the internet, it happens. So I started the restore again, the message started counting down that it would take an hour and a half to restore, and I took my printed handouts and my flash drive and went to give my workshop.

When I got home, success!!! I had my mail file back, Outlook started up as though nothing had happened and started receiving emails. All in all I lost 12 hours worth of emails, from the last backup on the Thursday morning until the crash that evening.

Perhaps the loss of all your emails doesn’t sound that serious to you? We get too many emails as it is. Yes, I do get too many emails, but many of them are from clients telling me what they want and giving details of their ancestors, and many more are from relatives with information for me about my family. In some cases these emails are the sources of the data I have in my own family tree. I print these ones, yes, but I also keep them in Outlook so I can forward them to others and find them more readily in their family folders.

The potential loss of my email was a disaster for me and my business and my life. With only 12 hours worth lost I could email the people I knew I’d gotten emails from (yes, I had read them before they disappeared) to ask for the information again, and no harm was done to my professional relationships.

The moral of this story is obvious. We need a backup strategy that continues to work without us having to remember to do it. I use Mozy for the things that change constantly and the portable hard drive for things that don’t change much like my photo collection. There are other online backup services besides Mozy but it’s the one I like – it’s cheap and it works.

It’s free for up to 2GB of data and US$4.95 per month for unlimited data. It’s more expensive for business users. The security and peace-of-mind it gives is priceless.

Eventually all computers fail. Be ready when yours does.

Computers in Genealogy

How on earth did we get by before we had computers? It’s hard to remember now how much longer everything took and how much harder we had to work! I’ve been thinking lately about all the ways computers help make genealogy more enjoyable and my list keeps getting longer and longer. Perhaps you can think of other ways as well – let me know!

We have email! Remember what life was like before email? We had to read about other researchers in books or journals and write them letters, and then wait for a reply. Correspondence took days, weeks, even months. With email it can be almost instantaneous, although of course it often isn’t. We can also send family history societies details of our brick walls and get replies back much quicker than we used to.

Family history software has replaced, for many of us, the index cards and files of paper we used to use. It was hard to keep track of what we had and where it had come from. Now, we can see all the facts we have about an ancestor at once, in one place. We can redraw charts in a very few minutes and print them out. We can even include photos on them.

Even if we don’t use a family history program we almost all use a word processing program, and perhaps even spreadsheet and database programs. Word processors allow us to write letters, reports, family histories and all sorts of things by typing and printing rather than hand-writing or using an old typewriter and white-out. We can easily correct our typing mistakes and edit what we’ve written as we go.

We can scan those precious old photographs and documents and distribute them to other family members. We can borrow and quickly scan those of our distant relatives and just as quickly return them.

We can print out reports and photographs quite easily. Most of us have black and white printers, if not colour photo printers, and can arrange them on the page the way we want, and even add text so we can see who is in the photo. We can print out reports from our family history program for family members without computers.

We have CD or DVD burners to back up the data we’ve spent so long acquiring. We can create copies of our family tree for family members.

We can put our family tree up on the web to help others to find us and share information. Storing a copy on the internet also backs it up in case of disaster on our own computer, or a worse catastrophe like a house fire.

We can buy data issued on CD to look at at our leisure. Parish register transcripts, census images, governement gazettes, encyclopedias, all sorts of rare old books are now available to us for the price of a CD.

We now have more indexes to births, deaths, marriages, censuses, wills, ship passenger lists – the list is growing every day. You used to have to find the index, if there was one, perhaps on microfiche, and then find the actual record. If there was no index you might have had to order a microfilm if your local society didn’t have it, then pore through the film, one frame at a time, looking for an entry that may or may not have been there. Not any more! Jump on the computer and have a look on the web!

Once we’ve found the entry we want in a index, we can now very often download an image of the actual record. Digitisation of the actual records has made many of them available on the internet, for free or for a relatively low fee. Then we can print them, store them, back them up (yes, I keep mentioning the backing up part).

To find documents or other resources that are not so easily accessible, we can check the catalogues, directions and opening of the repositories where they can be found before we leave home.

We can shop at home for the books, CDs and software that we need to continue our research.

Many of us now take our computers out with us when we go researching – laptops or even PDAs. PDAs are a topic in themselves, which I might cover another time.

Computers are marvellous resources, and get better all the time. I know there are family historians out there who do not take advantage of all of these wonders, and I guess they are not likely to be reading this!

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