Backups and more backups – wait, what do I do with all these backups?

Once upon a time we had carbon copies as our backups. Then we had photocopies. Now we have digital backups of systems and information and pretty much everything. And backups of our backups. And probably another backup for that too.

Most agencies will have one or more backups of their IT and business systems, including their records. Backups, even though they are necessary, do come with their own set of recordkeeping issues that you might need to think about.

So, what is a backup exactly and what do you do with them when they contain backups of records? And what’s the difference between a backup and data archiving?

Is a backup like something you do in a car?

A backup is basically a copy of your information and/or systems stored somewhere else safe just in case something happens to the original information or systems. If you have a backup system in place, it will usually be for disaster recovery or business continuity purposes and involve copying entire systems in case of failure.

Data archiving is different to backups as it usually involves moving selected, usually inactive, data to a cheaper storage medium so it can be removed from the everyday active online system – basically the stuff you’re not using anymore but still have to keep.

Data archiving is great for organising your records storage, but you still need another way of keeping track of your records and preserving them for as long as necessary – data archiving can’t do that for you.

Backups and data archiving are both a necessary part of information management in today’s technological world, but there are potential problems.

Problems, what problems?

There are four main issues to think about:

  1. Backups create copies of records. Copies are records too and still need to be destroyed appropriately when the time comes when you don’t need them anymore.

They also usually save all this data as one big bucket of information, or sometimes entire systems. This not only makes finding what you want difficult, but it also means that it’s a big mix of record types and retention periods and it’s hard to know what to do with it all.

  1. Backups (and data archiving) are pretty good at storing records but they’re not so good when it comes to making sure records remain accessible and usable and preserved for the entire time you need to keep the records.

They also don’t usually keep or maintain any of the metadata associated with the records either, which can make it really hard to know what the records are about or what functions and activities they are attached to, what happened to the records and when, where they are, who needs them, what date they were created etc. No metadata = no context for the record.

So, you need to remember your digital preservation techniques here – have a look at our advice on digital preservation for more information on keeping digital records accessible and usable for as long as they need to be kept.

  1. Backups aren’t usually created by copying and pasting files from one drive to another. Most of the time backups of systems and big amounts of data use proprietary storage compression algorithms to increase density. What does that mean? It’s software you pay a lot for to squish your information and save on storage space.

However, that means you need to keep paying for that software to be able to access your backups and the risks to your information (loss, inaccessibility, unusability, corruption etc.) increases the longer you keep the backups, particularly if vendors change or go out of business.

There are also technological obsolescence problems too – the vendors update their software quite often to prevent obsolescence and there is a limit on how far back they go when it comes to backwards comapatibilty.

  1. Lastly, and you may or may not know this already, but any information you have stored in a backup may be discoverable if your agency is part of litigation or there is an RTI request for a document and you can’t find it.

This also goes for any RTI requests. If you can’t find a record someone has requested and it hasn’t been legally destroyed, you might be asked to search through the backups to see if you can find it. ‘It’s lost’ just doesn’t cut it.

Check out the information on the Office of the Information Commissioners website about s29 and s52 of the Right to Information Act 2009. These two sections cover when a backup system can and should be searched and under what circumstances it would be required.

But what I do with backups?

So, considering all those potential problems, what do you do with backups?

Backups of systems, files, data etc. is mostly done by your agency’s IT team, however, they do contain records and we know what that means – records managers need to be involved too.

Things to think about

Think about whether or not you may need to be involved in the process so that your IT team is aware of the recordkeeping issues. This may be related to how backups are carried out in your organisation. Think about:

  • The backup cycle – is it daily, weekly or monthly?
  • Are backups incremental or full or a combination of both depending on when it’s done?
  • How critical is the info being backed up and how often is info changed in the application?
  • Are backups regularly tested (and how often) to ensure that the system can be recovered from the backups produced if necessary?

You should also look at Information Standard 18 – Information Security – it has all sorts of information on backup requirements and the appropriate disposal of media.

Disposal of backups

You should also have a chat to your IT people to make sure they are only keeping backups for as long as required.

The GRDS says backups can be destroyed after business action completed so you don’t need to keep them forever, but you and your IT team will need to decide when that business action has completed and it’s no longer needed.

Capturing records from backups

Lastly, what if you find out a record you need is only on a backup, for example if the original is lost or damaged? Or a backup has records that haven’t been captured elsewhere for some reason? Somehow you need to get a copy of that record from the backup (talk to IT – they’ll help you to figure out how) and capture it as a record into your recordkeeping system. Then you can manage it just like any other record.

More information

You can always find more information about capturing, keeping and destroying records as well as preservation advice, and storage for digital records on the website.

If you have any further questions or need more information you can contact the Government Recordkeeping team on 07 3037 6630 or email us at

Featured image: Computer area – Treasury Building, Brisbane, June 1965. Digital image ID 21836

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