The Personal Digital Archiving 2015 Conference

"Washington Square Park" by Jean-Christophe Benoist. On Wikimedia.

“Washington Square Park” by Jean-Christophe Benoist. On Wikimedia.

The annual Personal Digital Archiving conference is about preserving any digital collection that falls outside the purview of large cultural institutions. Considering the expanding range of interests at each subsequent PDA conference, the meaning of the word “personal” has become thinly stretched to cover topics such as family history, community history, genealogy and digital humanities.

New York University hosted Personal Digital Archiving 2015 this past April, during a chilly snap over an otherwise perfect Manhattan spring weekend. The event attracted about 150 people, including more students than in the past.

Each year, depending on the conference’s location and the latest events or trends, the PDA audience and topics vary. But the presenters and attendees always share the same core interest: taking action about digital preservation.

PDA conferences glimpse at projects that are often created by citizen archivists, people who have taken on the altruistic task of preserving a digital collection simply because they recognized the importance of the content and felt that someone should step up and save it. PDA conferences are a chance for trained archivists, amateur archivists and accidental archivists to share information about their projects, about their challenges, about what worked and what didn’t, and about lessons learned.

Videos from Day 1 and Day 2 are online at the Internet Archive.

Howard Besser. Photo by Jasmyn Castro.

Howard Besser. Photo by Jasmyn Castro.

Howard Besser, professor of Cinema Studies at NYU and founding director of the NYU Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, set the tone in his welcome speech by talking about the importance of digital video as evidence and as cultural records, especially regarding eyewitness video of news events.

Keynote speaker Don Perry, a documentary film producer, talked about “What Becomes of the Family Album in the Digital Age?” (PDF) and his work with “Digital Diaspora Family Reunion.” He talked about preserving digital photos and the cultural impact of sharing photos with friends and family. He stressed that this work applies to every individual, family and community, and that everyone should consider the cultural importance of their digital photos. “The value of the artifact – and what we keep trying to tell young people – is that they are the authors of a history in the making,” said Perry. “And that they need to consider the archives that they’re creating as exactly the same kinds of images that filmmakers like us use to make a documentary. People in the future will be looking through their images to try to understand who we are today.”

Panel: Personal Tools and Methods for PDA. Photo by Jasmyn Castro.

Panel: Personal Tools and Methods for PDA. Photo by Jasmyn Castro.

Preserving digital photos is always popular at PDA conferences. It is a common interest that binds us together as stakeholders, especially since the advent of mobile phone digital cameras. Presentations related to digital photos included:

The digital preservation of art (material and digital) is quickly emerging as an area of concern and archivist activism. PDA 2015 had these art-related presentations:

There was a noticeable absence of commercial products and digital scrapbooks at PDA 2015. Instead, presentations, workshops and posters shared practical information about projects that used open-source tools:

Another emerging trend at PDA conferences is toward Digital Humanities and Social Sciences research. Some researchers analyzed and pondered human behavior and digital collections, while others compiled data into presentations of historical events. Presentations included:

I wrote in the beginning of this post that the meaning of the word “personal” is getting stretched at PDA conferences; it’s more like the concept of “personal” is expanding. Personal photos mingle with family personal photos to become a larger archive, a family archive. Facebook has spawned a “local history” phenomena, where members of a community post their personal photos and comments, and the individual personal contributions congeal organically into a community history site. PDA 2015 had several community-related presentations:

Increasingly we hear from colleges and universities, usually — though not exclusively — from their librarians, expressing concern that students and faculty may not be aware of the need to preserve their digital stuff. PDA 2015 hosted a panel, titled “Reflections on Personal Digital Archiving Day on the College Campus” (PDF), comprising representatives from five colleges who spoke about their on-campus outreach experiences:

  • Rachel Appel, Bryn Mawr College
  • Amy Bocko, Wheaton College
  • Joanna DiPasquale, Vassar College
  • Sarah Walden, Amherst College
  • Kevin Powell, Brown University.

We featured a follow-up post on their work for The Signal titled, “Digital Archiving Programming at Four Liberal Arts Colleges.”

A visiting scholar from China, Xiangjun Feng, was scheduled to deliver a presentation on a similar subject — personal digital archiving and students and scholars at her university — but she had to cancel her trip. We put her presentation online, “The Behavior and Perception of Personal Digital Archiving of Chinese University Students.” (PDF)

Howard Besser gave the keynote address on Day 2 of the conference, along with his fellow video-preservation pioneer, Rick Prelinger. It was more like a jam session between two off-beat scholars. Each showed a video clip; Besser showed “Why Archive Video?” and Prelinger showed the infamous “Duck and Cover,” a 1951 public service film aimed at school children that advises them to take shelter under their desks during a nuclear attack.

Other presentations during the conference also touched on video preservation:

The third day of the conference was set aside for hand-on workshops:

  • Courtney Mumma, “Archivematica and AtoM: End-to-End Digital Curation for Diverse Collections”
  • Peter Chan, “Appraise, Process, Discover & Deliver Email”
  • Cal Lee and Kam Woods, “Curating Personal Digital Archives Using BitCurator and BitCurator Access Tools”
  • Yvonne Ng, Marie Lascu and Maggie Schreiner, “Do-It-Yourself Personal Digital Archiving.”

Ng, who is with the human-rights organization, Witness, also gave a presentation during the conference titled, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of a PDA Resource.” (PDA)

Perhaps the conference is also expanding past the “preservation” part of its name into usage; after all, preservation and access are two sides of the same coin. It’s a pleasure every year to see the new ways that people address access and usability.

We still have yet to hear much from the genealogy community, from community historians and public librarians about preserving family history and community history. The same for the healthcare, medical and personal-health communities, though it’s just a matter of time before they join the conversation.

Cliff Lynch, directory of the Coalition for Networked Information, wrote in his essay titled “The Future of Personal Digital Archiving: Defining the Research Agendas,” (published in the book, Personal Archiving), “In the near future, medical records will commonly include genotyping or gene sequencing data, detailed machine-readable medical history records, perhaps prescription or insurance claim information, tests, and imaging. Whether the individual is dead or alive, this is prime material for data mining on a large scale…We could imagine a very desirable — though perhaps currently impossible – future option where an individual could choose to place his or her medical records (before and after death) in a genuinely public research commons, perhaps somewhat like signing up to become an organ donor.”

“…personal collections, and now personal digital archives, are the signature elements that distinguish many of the genuinely great research collections housed  in libraries and archives…We need policy discussions about…what organizations should take responsibility for collecting them. This conversation has connection to the evolving mission and strategies not just of national and research libraries, but of local historical societies, public libraries, and similar groups.”

The conversation will continue at Personal Digital Archiving 2016, hosted by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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