In Which Tragedy Strikes My Photo Library

I have a sad story to tell you now. I have not been able to post photos to Blip for several days because I have encountered a major problem with my photo library. I knew this day would come, and I've awakened in the night many times worrying about it before it happened; now the day I dreaded is finally here.

Let's start at the beginning: Hello, my name is Anita, and I am a Digital Hoarder! I keep all kinds of things, including pretty much every photo I've ever taken. This sort of approach, as it turns out, can get a girl in trouble.

I bought my first digital camera in February 2010, and the first picture I ever took was of our tabbycat, Dexter. For years, I used the application iPhoto, and more recently, Photos, on the Mac. I have kept it marvelously organized, with the best photos flagged, and keywords attached to everything. My process is simple: take a bunch of pictures, upload them all to the computer, flag the best ones, edit them, tag them all, and export the ones I want to post to Facebook and Blipfoto to a folder on my desktop.

When my photo library got too large, I migrated it off the computer itself and onto an external drive. I backed it up regularly by copying the library to a second external drive, then deleted the pictures off the camera memory card. Over the years, I've purchased about 10 external drives of various sizes, from one-half of a TB to 4 TB. 

How many pictures are we talking about? I can't tell you how many I took with the Canon PowerShot SX 120 IS camera, which was my first digital camera from Feb. 2010 to Dec. 2011, but I took roughly 100,000 photos with the SX 40 (Dec. 2011 to Nov. 2013), 170,000 photos with the SX 50 (Nov. 2013 to Nov. 2016), and more than 100,000 with the SX60, my current squeeze.

The photo library is currently larger than 2 TB, so it is kept on a 3-TB external drive. It has grown unwieldy, but I had big plans to go back in and prune it down as an early after-retirement project. I also have ideas for several additional photo books.

I have also kept a photography notebook, where I make notes and diagrams when I am working on a project, such as a photo book or calendar. After I experienced a major problem with the photo library (3/24/16), I started also making notes for each day: the date, how many photos I took, and what the major subjects were.

During the time that I worked in the Outreach Building at Penn State, about once a month, I'd leave the computer in my office overnight, lock the door, and let it back up the photo library where it could remain undisturbed. A back-up might take 12 to 24 hours depending on which drive I was using. The last back-up I made was in March of this year, just before the Covid lockdown sent us all scurrying home. After I did a back-up, I'd delete all of the pictures off the camera memory card and reuse it.

Unfortunately, once I was working remotely, I did not have any place at home to do back-ups. The three-bedroom house seemed roomy when I moved in by myself in 2004. It felt less so when I moved a cat in in 2008 and gave him his own room, and then a brand new husband later that year. When I work from home, I work from my bed in the main bedroom. It's either that or the kitchen table. No, I do not even have a desk!

As part of my planning to retire sometime this fall, I purchased a brand new personal MacBook Pro computer in the summertime, the first computer I have ever actually owned. It had a new operating system on it, Catalina. My work computer still had the old operating system, and had no trouble opening my Photos library. I had plans to back up the photo library before attempting to open it in Catalina for the first time, as I knew there would be updates that might hang up the library for a day or two.

After Dexter died, I began using the table by the window in his room for my computer activities. I tried to back up the Photos library by attaching it to the new computer and copying it from one external drive to another. No go. It copied about 4.85 GB and said it couldn't complete the copy.

Then I got an email from our work tech support people about two weeks ago with an urgent message saying I had to have my work computer upgraded to Catalina immediately, as my old OS was no longer supported. If I did not get it upgraded by the end of November, they threatened to remove my access to that computer. And NO, it absolutely could NOT wait until I retired at the end of December, and would be returning the work computer.

I suspected that the migration to Catalina might pose issues for my photo library, so last week, in preparation, I tried to back up the photo library again. I attempted four times to back it up using both the new personal computer and the older work one. All attempts failed. It said there was data that could not be copied, which I gather now is the Kiss of Death, and means you have an error or corruption somewhere.

This past Monday afternoon, they upgraded my work computer. So now I have TWO Macs that have Catalina on. Tuesday after work, I bit the bullet and attempted to open the photo library from within the Photos application on the new personal computer for the first time. It seemed to be doing fine for about 24 hours. When I got up the next day, though, it was 100% updated, but the library could not be opened! I tried it again Wednesday - again it updated the library, with the same result: it could not open the library.

Thursday, I finally contacted Apple Support. They attempted to help me open the library, copy the library, and repair the library, all without success. Thursday evening, I then attempted to open the library from the old work computer, as it had always managed to open it before. Friday evening around 8 pm I learned the sad news: no dice! The library will not open. (In the meantime, of course, I could NOT upload photos, edit photos, or post any photos to Blip or Facebook. What a sad couple of days!)

I have consulted the experts I have available to me, including the best accessibility IT guy at Penn State, a former photographer for National Geographic, and the Apple Support dude. If I right-click on my library, I can see "the package," as they call it, which includes the database files and all of the originals. Inside one or more of those files is a corrupted item that won't copy. 

At some point, I'll go in and start copying the originals and masters over to another hard drive, and see if I can isolate and eliminate the offending items (not unlike ferreting out a rabid weasel from the woodpile - with all apologies for mixing metaphors and mustelids). I might be able to save most of it or import it into a new library. Catalina can handle more than one.

Back in May, I suffered a catastrophic failure of a camera memory card, in which I lost several hundred photos, including the tulips at peak in Childhood's Gate at the Arboretum, and the underwater ballet of the snapping turtles at the Lower Trail.

After that happened, I took the advice of my best IT guy and simply KEPT the photos on the memory cards, rather than deleting them off it. So I do have all of the pictures from about May 2 through now - including the last pictures I have of Dexter alive and happy in summertime, which means a lot to me - on two different camera memory cards; do you know - I had dreams of making a second Dexter photo book.

So this morning (Saturday, and oh what a long strange trip it's been), I created a brand new photo library on my new MacBook Pro and imported the latest two memory cards (more than 8,000 photos). Photos is a little different in Catalina, but I'm sure I'll get used to it.

When I accessed Photos via the huge library, it was twitchy, annoying, and slow as molasses in January; now it's like greased lightning! And the good news is that for the first few years, the library will be small enough to stay on the computer, which keeps things nice and simple. For a while, anyway. And then we'll begin again with the external drives.

Here are some assets I have access to that will help me recover what I can, and what matters the most:
*The last back-up I did of the library in March, which is sitting on a pretty much brand new 4-TB drive.
*Several other back-ups, on various other external drives, of the Photos library through the past 5 to 10 years.
*Exports of photos over the past many years for photos I posted on Blip and Facebook, in a desktop folder called, simply enough, Desktop Photos. (I only wish I'd more consistently exported photos into folders with brief but pithy names and dates.)
*Exports of all of the photos I've published in the 36 photo books I've made, as well as all of the photos used in mugs, blankets, calendars, etc. 
*A photo journal documenting what pictures I took on which days for the past several years.
*Blipfoto, where I have a record of the BEST photo I took each day for approximately the past 10 years! And a huge honkin' Blipfoto spreadsheet to accompany it, identifying the URL for each day, the Blip title, the subject, the keywords, and the songs. HOORAY AND THANK GOD FOR BLIPFOTO - It has saved my life, one day at a time.

Here are some philosophical musings on this entire experience, from one who's been there:
*When your boat is sinking, you can sit around trying to figure out whose fault it is and how you got to this horrible moment, OR you can start bailing out the water. I know that all of this is a mess of my own making. I choose to focus on problem solving.
*When you can see a trainwreck coming, it is very anxiety-arousing. There is almost something freeing about a disaster AFTER it happens. When the worst thing has happened that can happen, what can you do but move on? Dread-be-gone. That ship has sailed, baby.
*It was helpful to me that when I talked with my main IT guy about the library and my worries BEFORE all of this happened, he told me that no matter what happened next to the library database itself, the PHOTOS were all still there and could be recovered.
*It occurred to me at some point that the only photos I was going to get to keep were THE ONES I GAVE AWAY, i.e., the ones I downloaded so I could share them on Blipfoto and Facebook. There is something almost profound about that.
*I have just exported my first photos onto the new computer's desktop and now I have the chance to begin again; every export will be into a folder, neatly named and dated. Never forget that every day is a chance for beginning again, and maybe even doing better next time.

If there is something to be learned from this, it is the following: 
*Back up your photos!
*Back them up in multiple ways and places!
*Keep the photos on your camera memory cards - it's so cheap now, why not? I can remember spending a couple of bucks for each roll of film, and a few dollars more for film developing. Keeping the memory cards with originals intact is a cheap investment, recommended now by this belt-and-suspenders kinda gal.
*If you anticipate upgrading photo applications, operating systems, etc., back it up BEFORE you open it for the first time in the updated application. (I'm looking at YOU, Catalina!)

So that's the story from here. The photo above is a picture of T. Tiger, looking on, as I attempted to open the Photos library in Catalina for the first time. We were full of hope at this moment. However, I suspect we were not unlike the people on the Titanic, witnessing the sun go down for the very last time on that mighty ship. Only the next morning were our hopes totally dashed. And then again, each day, for the several following days. (This and other adventures in that wonderful Hemingway classic, "as Anita's blood pressure also rises.") However, I am hopeful that I can rescue a lot of what may seem lost to me now. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so? 

But I have access to a new photo library now, I can take pictures and upload and edit them again, and I do have some plans for how to approach recovering what I can. I have learned a thing or two. I have some catch-up to do, so please check back in on the couple of days I missed. And now, let's carry on Blipping, shall we?

The soundtrack song is this one: the BeeGees, with Tragedy.

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