What digital archives-related resources do you read–blogs, social media, articles, journals, listservs, etc.?
Lots of social media is noisy and demands a lot of time to follow, so I don’t use it too much. I’ve largely abandoned Facebook. I check Twitter once or twice a day, but I limit the people I follow to individuals in the field. Their posts are interesting and useful, because they point me to something I wasn’t aware of and wouldn’t have thought to search. Charles Bailey (@DigitalKoans) links to interesting reports and jobs. LC’s National Digital information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (@ndiipp) has lots of news. Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Trevor Owens (@tjowens) often link to interesting projects, but often they’re very technical and over my head.
I read The Signal, published by Library of Congress (blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation). Twitter feeds often point me to a blog entry that I’m interested in.
Tech magazines often have lots of really interesting things that are relevant to digital archives, although the connection may be a bit tangential. I really like Ars Technica and Wired.
Do you actively curate or archive your own personal digital materials? If so, how?
I don’t know that my personal papers are that interesting or merit selection by an archives. Much of my work is captured in publications, ranging from chatty articles for Archival Outlook to research in professional journals and to a few monographs. I have identified a few records (mostly email) from when I was president of SAA that may be of importance to the its archives. I did grab a copy of all the email from the Archives and Archivists list from 1998 to 2006 when there was some question as to its fate. I’ve used it to study the history of the profession, and I think it would be useful to others.
On the more personal side, my life has been good, but not extraordinary. My personal records wouldn’t add much or be a source of fascinating research – or even a boring dissertation. My family is small, and they don’t need a terabyte of travel photos, email, and receipts from Amazon to keep my memory alive. A few photos will probably be enough.
I am pretty religious about keeping things backed up, but that’s not an archives. I don’t have a routine to keep backups off site, so if the house burns, I might lose both my computer and backup drive. However, I use cloud storage for essential records.
I’ve migrated a few important files as software became obsolete. However, I have a lot of email in client applications (Eudora, WinMail) that Outlook couldn’t import. My partner has email from a Compuserv account that requires proprietary software; I kept the software, but I haven’t tried to recover those files.
Why is curating or archiving your own personal digital materials important?
As I noted above, I don’t see great value in my personal records. I’ve inherited some records from family members. I was pretty serious about appraisal and threw out many that were unidentified or redundant. I’ll add a few of mine to that collection and pass it on to relatives.
I try to keep enough records to remember people and events that were important in my life. I have a digital picture frame with a few dozen images of people and events. In many ways, that small collection captures the highlights of my life, without documenting the drudgery.
“Won’t personal digital archiving solve itself as the digital generation comes of age?” Your thoughts?
The problems of archives won’t change because those problems aren’t tied to technology. They’re people problems. Who will decide what to save? Who will reach out to find collections that can be acquired for archives that are accessible to a larger public?
Finding ways to get people to attend to their personal records for future use is always going to be a problem. Most people live in the present, and their lives are busy. Getting them to think about building and preserving a collection for future use can easily be put off a day, a month, a year. To use myself as an example, I never thought too much about my own family’s archives until this year, when my mother-in-law passed and I was then part of the oldest surviving generation in my family. Like many, my family relied on the elders to bear the torch of memory and preserve the past, and now it’s my turn.
It may very well be that the digital generation will have the skills to preserve digital records. At the same time, many members of the digital era are sophisticated consumers of technology. They can use existing tools, but they’re stymied when confronted with something out of the ordinary. Unless there are tools readily available for extracting email from older formats, for reading archaic formats, those materials may yet be lost.
Due to the distributed nature of personal digital archives, (i.e. content of an individual all over the web in different arenas: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) how should archivists approach the challenge of acquiring these dispersed digital materials? Are there tools to help?
A good example of why some problems of digital archives will never go away. Archivists will need to reach out to a wide range of people, seeking individuals who will help archivists build collections. The key difference is that archivists no longer have the luxury of time. Previously, personal records were often donated to an archives after an individual passed away. The family would look at their diaries, letters, and photos. They’d think “history”, and the records would be donated.
Archivists can’t wait until people pass away to collect their records. Currently, they may not be able to get records because they family doesn’t have passwords and social media sites won’t grant access. Even if they have a password, it’s likely that much would be lost over time. Facebook may be pervasive now, but I will be surprised if it’s as popular in ten years. Would an archivist in 2050 be able to capture Facebook posts of someone living now? Archivists need to identify people and groups that the future will want to know about, to understand, to study, and then approach them about capturing records now.
Martin Hawksey has a nifty tool to capture Twitter feeds using freely available Google tools that aren’t that hard to implement (see http://mashe.hawksey.info/2013/02/twitter-archive-tagsv5/
). Facebook allows individuals to download their pages, but that will require cooperation of the page owner. I firmly believe in harvesting web content relevant to an archives’ mission, including blogs. The Internet Archive’s Archive-It is probably the best service out there, but it’s not free. However, HTTrack is better than nothing. One of the challenges is finding web content that’s in scope. I developed a methodology to do that when I was in Arizona, but the tools to help automate that process are no longer available. I’m in the process of building new tools (see http://arstweb.clayton.edu/domainid/
to read about the project and follow my progress).
What can we do as archivists to change the culture of “benign neglect” that people so often have in regards to their personal digital records? How do you see people accessing personal digital records/archives in the future? 10 years? 20 years?
To avoid benign neglect – in a word – quit neglecting things. In a sense, personal collections are not archives. People have collections of personal records that they have saved – often by happenstance – and not through considered appraisal. Scrapbooking is an example of a conscious effort to save select items or tell a story, but I don’t know that the process is sufficiently systematic or complete to tell the whole story.
Archives are more than a bunch of old records. They are in a secure place (although copies in the cloud may provide greater protection than a hard drive or DVD). Most important, though, archives are a program to appraise, process, provide access, and support long-term preservation. Records are selected to capture context, to document the richness of history – not a rosy remembrance. Records are arranged and described to ensure that enough information is captured to make the records meaningful – identifying photographs, documenting family trees, noting important life events. Records are preserved to make sure that the whole of the collection is preserved, and history is not documented by things that survived by chance.
I don’t want to discount collections of personal records because they don’t match up with a theoretical model. Records that tell an important story of the past are valuable to families – and
some of these records should be acquired by formal archives to make them more widely accessible. Archivists must find new ways to connect with those people to acquire records before preservation is an insurmountable barrier and bring them into collections where they will be properly cared for. Without them, we will not have records that tell a complete, accurate, and authentic story of the past.
A call for archives to be actively engaged in acquiring personal records is no small task. But adapting sage advice from Fynnette Eaton, “Whatever we do, we may fail. But if we do nothing, failure is guaranteed.” Better that we make some effort and capture some piece of this history than to leave the future with none.
Thanks to Richard for sharing his insights! Want to volunteer to be interviewed for our Q&A blog posts? Know a digital records steward we should interview? Let us know: outreach [at] soga [dot] org.