My Technological Nightmare

Red-toned image of a person holding their head and screamingFor many years, I have advocated backing up one’s work using an external hard drive. In fact, I have been using a portable external hard drive for years, purchasing a new one only when I needed more space—I have many of images of documents stored, relating both to my own genealogy and to other historical subjects in which I am interested. For instance, my records on immigration and naturalization alone consist of 13,728 items (images, PDFs, Word and Excel files) that total 36.5 GB (gigabytes).

With so many resources available in a digital format, I no longer print out documents when I find them on my own family, saving them instead to an external drive containing 232 folders (one for each couple on my multi-generational chart, named for the husband). I have also been taking my hard copies from 30 years of research and digitizing them with my digital camera. Of course, I still save original items in paper form as well, such as wedding announcements, diaries, and personal letters.

Before recently, I believed that using an external hard drive was all I needed to protect me from data loss. I have always maintained that it is not a question of IF your computer will eat your data, but WHEN. But recently, I had the nightmare of all nightmares when I experienced an unexpected issue—something that had never happened to me before with an external hard drive.

Photograph of a digital camera set up on a stand over a paper record
My digitization set-up.

In November of 2021, I upgraded my external hard drive from a 4TB (terabyte) to a 5 TB drive. I made sure that the connection cable was a USB-C, since I had upgraded my MacBook Pro the year before and only had USB-C ports on my new machine. Unlike previous external hard drive purchases, I did not get a case for this one, because it was metal and appeared to be extremely sturdy.

A year later, while researching on the road in Salt Lake City, Utah and Belfast, Northern Ireland, I noticed several prompts from my laptop warning me that my drive had been disconnected without being properly ejected. I wondered what I was doing wrong, but ignored the messages even though I probably shouldn’t have.

Finally, in January of this year, I hooked up the external hard drive to look for some images to use in a lecture I was putting together, and discovered that the hard drive wasn’t powering up properly. I also noticed that the connector cable had become loose where it fed into the external hard drive. I tried a few different things, like switching the end of the cable that was plugged into the external drive, but nothing worked. To say that I was panicked would be an understatement.

I took it to a computer repair shop, and the proprietor had to look up a You-Tube video of how to open the hard drive. The next thing I saw was him using a wrench to tap on the top of a screwdriver as he tried to separate the cover pieces. All I could think was that my data was lost forever. How would I recreate all the work and research that had gone into it?

Photograph of an opened hard drive surrounded by tools and computer equipmentOnce he had it open, he explained that the soldering of the USB-C connector inside the case had completely come loose. I asked if this was something that could be reconnected, and the answer was no. At this point my anxiety went through the roof, thinking there was no way to get the data back. He tried to find a new “case” for it, but the actual drive inside was thicker than traditional 2.5-inch portable drives (of course, I had purchased the ONE drive that was unique).

As he was testing a particular case, he was able to get the hard drive to power up. He then called my attention to a rattling sound inside the drive, which he said indicated that it might have experienced an electrical shock. My nightmare was going from bad to worse, and my anxiety was so bad that I was shaking.

He then took the drive out of the new case, plugged it in to another computer—and lo and behold, the rattle went away, and there on the screen was all my data! I almost fell over. I had thought that without the case, the drive couldn’t be plugged in (I’m good with software, but computer hardware still mystifies me a bit). At this point, I asked him if there was a way we could move the data from the current disk to a new external disk drive, which he said we could do, and I pulled out the new 5TB drive I had purchased.

It took over 26 hours to migrate everything I had on the drive. When I returned to pick up the new drive with all my files on it, he hooked it up to one of his machines for me so that I could poke around and make sure everything was there.

Photograph of a laptop set up next to a monitor and a hard driveI was elated when I returned home with the new drive (which I had purchased a case for) and I plugged it into my laptop. Then, I found that while I could access everything on it, I couldn’t save new things to it, nor could I move the folders that were already on it. Everything I was reading told me I needed to reformat the hard drive—and that doing so would wipe out all my files, which was definitely not an option. Normally when I upgrade hard drives, the first thing I do is to format it to FAT32, which I know allows me to hook it up to either a Windows or Mac machine—but I couldn’t do that with the files already loaded in.

I took a breath and tried to slow my anxiety. I checked the properties of the drive and discovered that because the new drive had been new, and the computer guy had hooked it up to his Windows machine right out of the box, it had automatically been formatted to the Microsoft NTFS standard. While my MacBook Pro could read the drive, it wouldn’t allow me to write to it—that is, to actually save new files or make any changes.

I went to Google to see what my options were, and discovered that there was a $20 program that I could install from Paragon, NTFS for Mac, that would make it possible for the drive to communicate with my machine in its current format. I downloaded the file, authorized the installation, and rebooted the laptop. I may have said a prayer as the laptop was turning back on—thankfully, the program worked! I am now able to save and reorganize the files on my new drive.

I now know that one back-up drive is simply not enough security! To prevent this from happening in the future, I have purchased a second 5TB external drive to use while traveling. First, I will format it to FAT32, so I can use it with either Windows or Mac, and then I will copy all of my files onto it. I’ll make a point to copy anything new I save on my journeys back to the drive that I’ll keep at home, so that I never have to go through this again.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

34 thoughts on “My Technological Nightmare

  1. Wow! What an ordeal! I use three external drives and I back my software in Windows, Mac, and Acronis. Still one never knows when a drive is going to fail. So glad you could regain access to your files. Live and learn!

  2. Rhonda – It gave me a nightmare just reading about yours!! I have material saved since computers were invented for home usage. NOW I know I must do something about it all. Thank you very much for your informative input here!!!

  3. Yikes is all I can say about this informative post! Rhonda you must have nerves of steel because despite the difficulties one after another you kept your wits about you and got through it! I do appreciate the post as it contained lots of valuable information and hopefully I can avoid a similar trying situation because of reading your story.

  4. As a retired business owner who dealt with losses of data and rebuilding, I don’t take chances with my own genealogy and personal data. In addition to the regularly used 4 TB external hard drive, I do a monthly backup of this external hard drive to a 4 TB external drive and store it in a fire resistant safe at my home. I utilize cloud storage (which I regularly backup to my computer xhd) for the “works in progress” on word processing, spreadsheets, current genealogy projects, etc. And lastly, I subscribe to a cloud backup service (Backblaze). It is critical to have offsite storage in addition to the devices in my home. Perhaps my approach may seem like overkill, but once a person experiences significant data loss, taking extra precautions seems prudent.

  5. I had an external hard drive fail once. Rare, but apparently it happens. I really don’t want to commit my data to the cloud because of ever increasing costs, but perhaps it is the only way?

    1. I am definitely looking into cloud storage. When I originally started getting TB external drives, the costs were prohibitive. I would want at least 5TB with the opportunity to grow as my files grow. It is a top priority. I will likely do another article on what I discover.

  6. As your hardware episode illustrated, it is important to keep backups of your data, not only in multiple hardware stores, but also in alternate formats in other locations, such as cloud storage, which are not subject to such hardware failures, or local weather disasters. Most if not all of the popular services are compatible with the Mac file system formats.

  7. Rhonda, hate to ask, but what about cloud backups. Are you against using them? They have come a long way and I would recommend using a cloud service to back up your manual method. Belts and suspenders as they say.

    1. Yes to this! I gave up on external drives many years ago for this very reason. I back up to One Drive and Google Drive. So I technically have three copies that are always up to date: 1 on my computer hard drive, 1 on One Drive and 1 on Google Drive. The nice thing is that the cloud drives save your work as you go so its always up to date and I never have to do a thing!! The icons for the drives is on the lower right where it would let me know if there was a problem with the backup but it does it automatically!

    2. At the time I began using external hard drives it was as a backup and then it morphed into more of a primary drive. Also, as I found myself getting into TBs of space the cloud options at the time were cost prohibitive. However some are starting to look like a viable option and I will be investigating the different places and likely will share my experiences.

  8. I had a major computer hardware disaster a number of years ago, and it cost several thousand dollars to recover my files. Since then, I have an external hard drive connected to my computer that automatically backs up data; I back up to Carbonite in the cloud; I sync all my files using Google Drive so there’s a backup; and I back up all my genealogy files once a month to another external hard drive. I never want to go through my earlier experience again. Glad it ultimately worked out for you.

  9. Multiple backups are always a good idea, including off-site backups. To an online storage service, if you’re comfortable with that, or a disk that is updated says once a month and kept at work or a relative’s house (some place accessible enough you will keep the disk updated). Consider if your house was damaged by a natural disaster or fire. Would you be able to recover your research? (and all your other important data…)
    Most backup programs will let you do incremental backups that just update the information changed since the last backup, so you don’t have to copy all. those. images. every single time.

  10. On line storage may be an option. You can keep your files at home on a hard drive but access them from online when traveling. Drop Box (there are others) currently costs $15 per month for 5 TB storage and it syncs. the online files with hard drives.

      1. Thank you–that would be much appreciated! (Glad you got through this anxiety-provoking experience successfully!)

  11. Let’s quote Dick Eastman here: LOCKSS Lots of copies keeps stuff safe! One back up is not sufficient. Off-site storage is also a must.

  12. OMG. I had an anxiety attack just reading this! Hardware defeats me. Congrats on figuring out the issue.

  13. Rhonda, Thank you for sharing your story about back up storage failures. Are you considering adding a cloud storage solution?

  14. I save all of my data on my computer and in DropBox (cloud storage). I don’t know how likely it is that that would have a catastrophic failure; hopefully it will never happen, and I won’t lose everything.

  15. Holy cow, what a nightmare- so glad it is resolved for you! I wonder how many of us will go hard drive shopping this week?

  16. You need to add cloud back up to your daily process as well. Two external hard drives will do you no good if your house burns down.

  17. It’s curious why she wasn’t using a cloud backup service in addition to the external hard drive. I had a failure and got everything back from Backblaze.

    1. At the time I started using the external drives they were a back up and I morphed it into more of a primary drive. Terabytes of storage space were also astronomically priced in the cloud. This is certainly something I am examining now as there are more companies which makes prices more competitive.

      1. Thanks Rhonda, actually, I would not know what “genealogy files” to back up. I’m not sure which records are the ones to “save.” I have accounts with Ancestry, Family Search, FamilyTree Maker, GedMatch, FamilyTreeDNA, Find My Past and My Heritage. What is my first step?

  18. You, and everyone these days, should also have a backup in the cloud. I use Microsoft OneDrive, Backblaze, and a local external drive (or two), but there are numerous alternatives. With multiple copies and an internet connection you won’t have to wait 26 hours for a restore to access your files.

  19. We should clarify the terminology in this article. This article does NOT describe use of a backup drive, which by definition is a duplicate of data stored on a primary drive. This article describes use of an external drive as a data (primary) drive, without consistent and regular backup of those data. That is always a VERY risky situation. The preferred scenario would be to have AT LEAST one backup copy of the external data drive, preferably stored off-site (I use two external backup drives — one stored at home and one stored (before retirement) at my office or (after retirement) in my bank’s safety deposit box). And those are two BACKUPS of my primary data drive. When protecting data, the “belt and suspenders” rule should always be used.

  20. Any information I store on a cloud is data for a limited use so nothing is backed otherwise. If it’s lost, not a problem. All genealogy or important papers are always on paper…mostly hand written. Storing electronically the black bordered funeral notices is just not the same seeing them on a screen as having them in your hand.
    This article ,for me, has further proven that the power of electronics is not to be trusted for long term storage. I will continue to believe in the mighty power of pen and paper to keep and leave it all for the next generation to copy and store electronically and lose.

  21. So happy for you that it all turned out for the good, Rhonda!
    I have spent several decades researching my family. Over 20 years ago, a cousin and I partnered in our research. I will forever be thankful to him for urging me to back-up in multiple ways. Every day, when I complete my research for the day I copy my database from my computer to 2 separate external hard drives. I keep a 3rd one in my safe deposit box to protect against fire, natural disaster, etc and I rotate the 3 total hard drives into and out of that box to keep everything updated. I use Family Tree Maker, through which I have their Tree Vault service, which is a cloud-based repository as another back-up. Knock on wood, I have never lost data.

  22. I used to do computer repair and some data recovery. I kept an old desktop with disk utility software for just this purpose. Computers used to have several bays for multiple disks, until capacity became large enough to not require it. I would never attempt to recover an external disk in its case, although you take what you can get, I suppose. I would put it in a desktop, along with a new disk to copy it to as soon as I had access. This method eliminates a lot of potential problems at the very start. It is very common to lose access to your data, yet it almost always is still safe on the disk if you have the proper hardware and software to access it. Look for someone who knows what they are doing, and beware of phony egos. It would be a good idea to find a competent shop before you need it.

  23. For 25 years I kept paper records, and used an external hard drive to backup digital files. Around 2012 I subscribed to a cloud storage service where I could save all of my digital records. In December, 2017, we had less than 15 minutes to evacuate our home as a wildfire was raging through our area. No time to save the computer, no time to save paper records. No time to save much of anything. Within a few hours it was all gone! Some of our neighbors had fire resistant safes, but nothing contained inside survived. Our homes burned too hot for too many hours. I would never be without cloud storage, and now I save scans of every paper copy of records I find at libraries, or other research facilities. One can never have too many backups.

  24. Dear Rhonda,
    Thank you for sharing your intense anxiety in such an amusing manner, regarding possibly losing decades of research.
    I thought, “Rhonda McClure!!! She is the last person I would have named to be in such a state of extreme concern!
    Your post is a wakeup call to everyone.

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