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How To Recover From Data Loss

Data Recovery

We all know we should back up our data. Thomas is even kind enough to remind us to do it every month — and he even provides resources for us! But many of you, like me, will not listen to his wise advice. It doesn’t matter how many horror stories I tell you about airport security, fires, break and enters, floods, or computer crashes. You won’t do it. So instead of verbally berating you for not backing up your data, this article will focus on what to do when (not if) your data is lost.

There are two basic ways you could lose your data, and your approach to recovering it will depend on which one happened to you. In the first scenario, your electronic data is lost, but possibly recoverable. You still have the original media that the data was stored on, but for whatever reason the data is unaccessible. The second scenario is that the storage media is unavailable or destroyed. We’re going to cover both situations.

Scenario One: Partial Recovery

Say you accidentally deleted your database. Your computer crashed or was infected by a virus. You removed your USB drive while the computer was still writing to it. For some unfathomable reason your file became corrupted. Your CD/DVD became scratched and the computer will no longer read it. You still have the media you used to store the information on, but now it’s scrambled, corrupted, or simply inaccessible.

The first thing you need to do is breathe a sigh of relief. This is going to be easier — although possibly more expensive — than you thought.

  • If you accidentally deleted the database, you’ll be pleased to know that the data is still on your hard drive…until you overwrite it with other data. It’s just not linked to the file name in your operating system. There are plenty of undelete/recovery utilities that you can find on the web. NTFS Undelete happens to be one of my favourites (I’m a Windows user). The main thing you should remember is to download and install the utility to a drive other than the one your database was on. Every time you write to that drive, you risk overwriting your data.
  • If the file is corrupted or still appears on the drive but can’t be opened, contact your genealogy software’s manufacturer. Some software companies have internal recovery tools and methods they can use to help extract whatever remains of your data.
  • If the CD is scratched, take it to a gaming store and ask if they can use a “game doctor” or similar device on it. CDs become unreadable when the protective coating on them is scratched; this scratch can be polished and repaired, often for a nominal fee — or even for free, depending on the store. This will not work if the scratch is too deep, but in most cases it does the trick. (When I worked in a computer game store people brought in their video games and CDs to be retouched all the time.)
  • If the media is malfunctioning — say, a virus got to your computer, your hard drive is giving you fan failure errors, or your USB stick is bent — there are companies that specialize in data recovery. These places are not cheap, but they may be your best option if you have years of data that would take a long time to re-enter. Expect to spend around a thousand dollars or more, and to have to wait for a month while they extract and rebuild your files for you.

After you have done the appropriate steps above, you will hopefully have recovered all of your data, although a partial success is more likely. You can then proceed to the steps listed below, under “Total Loss”.

Scenario Two: Total Loss

Maybe you lost the storage media entirely. You left your USB drive at a large public library, your laptop got stolen, your house caught on fire, or lightning completely fried your computer. Your first step is harder, though less expensive. The first thing you are going to do is go to the liquor store and buy yourself the alcoholic beverage of your choice, to help fortify you for the task ahead.

The next step is to rack your brains for any possible scraps of remaining data. Did you send anyone an attachment that contained part of your database? Did you upload portions of your GEDCOM to a website? Did you halfheartedly attempt a partial backup at some point? Crawl through the internet and any other computers you “touched” with your data and try to recover as much as possible. Old, partial data is better than no data.

After you’ve done that, the hard part begins. You are going to go through all your paper files and re-enter the data. Frankly, this process could take months or even years depending on how much data you have and the time you can spend on it. You may wish to hire someone to help you re-enter it. College students, administrative assistants, and data entry workers are all good bets for this task as they are accustomed to filing things in particular orders, dealing with peculiar formats, and being detail-oriented. Mention your woes to your friends and colleagues and see if they or anyone they know would be willing to help re-enter data in exchange for remuneration, either monetary or otherwise. (Maybe you are an excellent cook, or your editing skills are famous.)

Once you have either found someone to help or decided to go it alone, you need to sit down with your physical files and start re-entering everything you still have. I recommend starting with the root person on the tree (you know, person #1 on that nice ahnentafel pedigree chart) and working your way up, generation by generation. As you go through each person, make a note of resources you know you consulted but can’t find in your physical files. That way you remember to go retrieve the 1916 census or grandpa’s probate file at a later time. Reconstruct the family tree generation by generation.

There are some bright spots in this amidst all this work. First, you may not have examined some of these files in years. Your genealogical skill and personal knowledge of the family will no doubt have increased, and you may make a connection or find information you didn’t realize before. Second, re-entering your data gives you a chance to cite it accurately. Many of us start citations halfway through our career, so starting from scratch is a great chance to fix those missing sources. And last, you have an excellent opportunity to do things “properly” this time around. The end of each re-entry session is a perfect breaking point to scan or photograph all documents you consulted and, for goodness’ sake, BACK UP YOUR DATA!


It’s been 6 months since I lost all my electronic data, including all my digital sources. Slowly but surely I’ve been piecing it back together. I’d say it’s about 65-70% done now. I sure know that 65-70% of the data a lot more closely than I did before I had to start over, though. And I know roughly what resources I consulted that I’m now missing, so when I get around to re-viewing them it won’t take much time. I am lucky because I lost my data fairly early on. I shudder to think about what would happen if my parents lost their decades of work. In fact, if you have a story about recovery from data loss, I would love to commiserate with you in the comments. Let’s just remember to click “Yes” when the genealogy program wants us to make an automatic backup the next time we close it…

About the Author: Katrina McQuarrie is a Gen Y genealogist who believes in making family history more accessible to non-nerds and young people. She runs a genealogy blog of her own called Kick-Ass Genealogy.

© 2010, copyright Katrina McQuarrie

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