The Baby has Been Banging on My Keyboard – Where Are My Deleted Files?

November 21, 2012

It has happened to all of us. For some reason, you have felt compelled to work at the computer with a toddler perched upon our lap. Getting into the spirit, as little people will, he pushes “delete” button and your work vanishes. Stuff gets lost on the average computers all the time. But, where do the deleted files go? Can they be brought back?

The answers depend upon many things. There is not enough time or space here to detail every possibility with regard to hardware and software, but you should assume that if you have not saved a document at the beginning of your work and given it a name your computer will not acknowledge that your document exists. Just one power outage in the middle of creating chapter one of your Great American Novel, and the thing is gone. POOF! (Some applications, like GoogleDocs, for example, will save your work every few minutes from the beginning. Of course, if you are a chronic non-saver, you may want to consider working there.)

If you determine that a file is no longer important and relegate it to the recycle bin, it can be restored if you change your mind. Until, that is, you push the ‘empty recycle bin’ button. Then, for all practical purposes, that file goes out of your reach. That is the bad news.

The good news is, your documents are not instantly and irrevocably gone. Here’s an over simplified version of what happens to ‘deleted’ files:  When you create a file and name it, your computer writes a line or two of code and stores the information about where the document lives on your hard drive and how to find it. If you move the file to another folder, your computer overwrites the initial code and inserts another set of instructions. When you delete a file, your computer waits until you have pushed the “flush” button on the recycle bin, and then removes all references to the document from your hard drive. The space where the file was saved is still occupied by the document itself, but the space is marked as ‘available.’ The next time you create a document, it will likely be assigned the place your old document lived. At this point, your old file is over-written and gone.

Know that a trained data recovery specialist can often retrieve your files even after you push the ‘empty recycle bin’ key. The secret to salvaging all or part of your file is not to do something, which will cause the file to be written over. Among the worst things you can do is to buy and use ‘data recovery’ software packages, since their process often corrupts and destroys the very data you hoped to save. For your money, hiring a reputable data recovery service is the best chance you have of recovering deleted files.

Get into the habit of saving and naming your work first thing, then saving your changes regularly. It will save you lots of gray hair.