For 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.
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?
Once 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.
I 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, Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer specializing in New England and celebrity research as well as computerized genealogy; is compiler of more than 120 celebrity family trees; has been 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 ten books, including the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition, Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, and Digitizing Your Family History.View all posts by Rhonda McClure →