Doing history: Why backups are very important…

I’ve been a Apple guy my entire (computerized) working life. I started out with an Apple //c and a greenscreen display, and an Apple thermal printer. Down at the newspaper, we went Macintosh as soon as Macs became available after going through a series of sometimes quite odd systems. When the old //c finally became obsolete, I went with a series of Macs, including a Mac SE and a UMAX tower Mac clone. Down at the newspaper, we gradually went from the original Macs with their tiny screens to towers with hulking CRT displays.

My first Mac was the wonderful SE, which had a relatively big hard drive and was quite fast for its day.

My first Mac was the wonderful SE, which had a relatively big hard drive and was quite fast for its day.

With iteration of new Mac towers down at the office, from G3s through the entire G4 line, I made sure each machine had two hard drives, the main drive and a backup. I’ve used a series of backup programs over the years before settling on SuperDuper, which I had–and still have–set up to automatically back up each Mac every weekday.

At the Little White School Museum, we also started out with Macs because that’s what I knew best and because I figured (rightly, it turned out) that we’d be doing lots of graphics, from publications to museum signage to photographs and photo restorations. I’ve got them set up with separate hard drives, too, and they all also back themselves up daily, just in case.

I was one of the few suckers who invested in a UMAX clone, which Steve Jobs promptly killed after he came back to Apple after dabbling with NeXT for a few years.

I was one of the few suckers who invested in a UMAX clone, which Steve Jobs promptly killed after he came back to Apple after dabbling with NeXT for a few years.

At home, my main desktop Mac, which is now a 2011 Mac Mini, is also set to automatically back itself up daily to an Iomega MiniMax external drive. Our laptops at home, however, are not conducive to having an external hard drive permanently attached, so they get backed up less frequently. Last week, for some reason, I decided it was time to back up my wife Sue’s MacBook, which I did. For our MacBooks, I have 250 megabyte hard drives mounted in external enclosures with Firewire ports. I’ve felt it’s important to do that because if the worst happens, the laptops will be able to start up from the external hard drive using the Firewire connection. And using SuperDuper, an exact copy of a computer’s hard drive–a bootable copy–is copied to the external hard drive.

This week, all that computer paranoia paid off. As we were frantically packing to leave for a short trip to Wisconsin, Sue mentioned that Microsoft Word had frozen on her machine in the middle of her doing her book group’s newsletter. So I took a look, and sure enough the dread spinning beachball was telling me things had indeed clogged up somewhere in her MacBook’s electronic plumbing. I tried the old command-option-escape trick to force quit Word, but nothing happened. Which indicated it was not Word, it was the computer. So I did a hard reset by holding down the power button to shut down, counting to ten, and then restarting. At which point I heard the far more dreaded click of death coming from her hard drive, which meant, essentially, that it was trashed. I’ve been holding a laptop hard drive in reserve for just such an occasion, so I quickly installed it, and her machine started up just fine using the other drive, which I had salvaged from a former laptop. But it had an older operating system and was filled with my files, not her’s.

Sue's trusty MacBook proved not so trusty this past week, pointing up the importance of backing up your computer.

Sue’s trusty MacBook proved not so trusty this past week, pointing up the importance of backing up your computer.

So after getting up to Wisconsin, I decided to upgrade her system  first and then copy over all the files from the external backup drive, which I had packed to bring along. But half way through the install, the alternate drive started issuing its own click of death. I tried a couple repair apps, but no dice; that drive was also fried. So I plugged in the external backup drive, and booted from that and we were good to go, she only having lost, basically, the book group newsletter she was working on.

It’s a bit kludgy with having an external drive whirring away on the floor next to her, but it’s working until we can get home and get another computer. I’m leery about installing another drive in her old MacBook for fear a problem with the drive controller is frying hard drives, so I found a nicely Mac-reconditioned MacBook for her, which will, hopefully, be waiting for us when we get home.

The moral of all of this is that computers are wonderful things, and they make historical research remarkably fast in this day and age. Localized sites like Early Chicago, the Internet Archive, the Illinois Secretary of State’s Online Databases, and the Library of Congress American Memory Collection, along with amazing map collection sites like the University of Illinois Historical Maps Online site and the remarkable David Rumsey Historical Map Collection make research not only fun but very rewarding. But computers are also fickle things whose electronic feelings are easily hurt. A friend the other day asked if I keep backups of the thousands of photos we’ve digitized down at the Little White School Museum, and I told him that we keep an on-site backup, plus I carry a full backup in my briefcase on a portable hard drive, plus I have a full backup copy at home. A person can’t be too careful.

And because I was careful, even if it was by accident, we’re enjoying our trip up to the north woods instead of trying to deal with a deceased computer. So the moral is, even if you’re not doing history on your computer, back it up. Do it right now, and then mark your calendar and do it regularly afterwards. You’ll be glad you did. Really, you will.

 

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Filed under Frustration, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Uncategorized

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