Today’s Question: The bad news: hard drive needed replacing. Good news: I have faithfully backed up all my imports to external hard drives. Bad news: I seem to have lost my collections and therefor my organization. Is there/was there a way to have preserved the collections and restored them, rather than just all Lightroom photos as one large import?
Tim’s Quick Answer: The Collections you use in Lightroom are only contained within the catalog. Therefore, you can only protect (or recover) the actual Collections by backing up your Lightroom catalog. You can also work around this issue by using keywords based on your Collections. If you don’t have a backup copy of your original Lightroom catalog, and you didn’t use a feature such as keywords as an alternative to Collections, then unfortunately you will not be able to recover your Collections.
More Detail: Most of the Lightroom-specific features are only contained within the Lightroom catalog file. This includes Collections, Virtual Copies, Pick and Reject Flags, and other features. While Lightroom does provide you with the option to save metadata updates to your actual image files (or XMP “sidecar” files in the case of RAW captures), most of the Lightroom-specific features will not be included as part of that metadata.
If you take advantage of the option to save metadata updates to your image files in addition to the Lightroom catalog, importing your photos into a new Lightroom catalog will also import the standard metadata updates you had applied. In other words, you would still have your keywords, star ratings, and other metadata. But Lightroom-specific features (such as Collections) would not be included as part of this approach.
This obviously underscores the importance of backing up your Lightroom catalog. However, my personal preference is to try to avoid a strong dependence on my Lightroom catalog in the first place. For example, this is part of my motivation for using star ratings rather than Pick and Reject Flags to identify my favorite (or not-so-favorite) images.
In the case of Collections, I recommend the use of keywords as a helpful workaround. You can still use Collections within Lightroom to help you manage (and locate) images. But then add a keyword to images in order to identify the Collection to which those images belong. For example, if you have created a Collection for a calendar you will produce for 2017, you could add a keyword such as “Calendar 2017” to the images within the Collection.
I also recommend turning on the “Automatically write changes into XMP” checkbox on the Metadata tab of the Catalog Settings dialog. This will cause metadata updates (including keywords but excluding Collections) to be written to your images in addition to the Lightroom catalog. And, of course, I recommend maintaining a regular backup of your Lightroom catalog as well.