Cinda May, a key organizer of the Personal Digital Archiving 2014 conference, is one of a growing number of information professionals helping to digitally preserve personal and community history. May, chair of Special Collections at Indiana State University Library, is a co-creator of the Wabash Valley Visions & Voices Digital Memory Project and, as such, she has facilitated collaborations among small groups, inspired volunteers and brokered technology sharing.
So it was natural for May to volunteer to help organize and host PDA 2014 in her home state. The conference was held in the art deco Indiana State Library on April 10 and 11 and it was co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Indiana State Library and the Indiana State University Library. As with past PDA conferences, the topics spanned a range of interests but shared one common element: most of the people at the conference displayed an altruistic spirit of doing something about personal digital archiving just because it needs to be done.
There were a few distinct topics that threaded through the presentations. One was a challenge by professional archivists to the term “personal digital archiving.” In fact, coming up with one definition of personal digital archiving seems to be like the story of the blind man and the elephant, in that different people perceive it in different ways. There was a loose agreement that “personal digital archiving” applies to any digital preservation aside from the institutional digital preservation achievements of the National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and other major institutions.
Jenny Bunn, from the University College London, asserted that personal digital archiving was neither “personal” nor “archiving”; proper archiving requires the involvement of professional archivists. Lori Kendall, from our NDIIPP/NDSA partner the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that even if people follow all the PDA advice that we recommend in our outreach efforts, it is not “archiving” in the professional sense. She cautioned that we tend to envision users as historians or biographers and we don’t think about personal digital archiving practices as carefully as we should. Kendall said, “We are paying too much attention to what people have and not enough to what they do…We need to shift the focus from ‘preservation’ to ‘use,’ look more closely at what people want to do and give them a way to tell the stories that are important to them.”
That topic — paying objective attention to what people actually do and what they might want to do — came up several times over the two-day conference. A few presenters cited the work of Noah Lenstra, who observed in his PDA workshops that even though people understand the PDA advice, it is, after all, work. The reality is that they spent their free time socializing on Facebook and uploading photos to it. Lenstra said that Facebook is becoming a de-facto personal archive for many of its users and he recommends that we pay attention to that and learn from people’s behavior.
Several presenters also cited Microsoft’s Cathy Marshall and her research on observing people’s personal digital actions. Marshall says that we can’t force people to change their behaviors. In the book, Personal Digital Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage (to which the Library of Congress contributed a chapter), Marshall looks at the widespread use and popularity of social media and how there is an implicit socialization factor that we are not taking into account when we discuss PDA. She wrote, “Personal digital archiving will require more than well-designed technology to become a force that is more powerful than benign neglect. Policy, education, and public and private efforts are necessary to realize the inherent sociality and reach of today’s personal archives.”
Keynote speaker Andrea Copeland, from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, examined the social media component of personal digital archiving. Patricia Galloway, from the University of Texas at Austin, gave a presentation titled, “Trends in Student Management of Personal Records,” in which she considered — among other things — the role of Facebook in student’s lives.
Several presenters and attendees expressed their appreciation for the Library of Congress’s personal digital archiving resources. Amy Elizabeth Neeser and Jody Kempf of the University of Minnesota Libraries use our resources in different contexts. They described one event, though, where they planned to talk to students about preserving their digital photos (Neeser and Kempf even dressed someone up in a sandwich board designed to look like a digital camera.) and hardly anyone came. That raised the question of how to engage people’s interest. “If you build it, there’s no guarantee they’ll come,” said Kempf. “How do you get people to care?”
That, of course, is a huge question…one that the Library of Congress has grappled with in some of its own outreach efforts. The question sparked a lively debate. Neeser and Kempf are evaluating other strategies for reaching students, especially undergraduate students, such as collaborating with professors to integrate digital preservation into their curriculum.
Yvonne Ng, from the human-rights organization, Witness, touched on a similar topic at the end of her presentation. Witness uses video to help people in crisis situations document their experiences and they provide extensive information and support. Ng talked about Witness’s massive push to distribute their detailed Activists Guide to Archiving Video ”We had to really work to get it out there and get the responses,” said Ng. “Outreach on a resource can take more time than producing the resource in the first place and no one reaches out to you to provide feedback unless you actively — not just passively — reach out to them and ask.”
“Community” was a topic common to many of the presentations. Rodney Freeman, from the Indianapolis Public Library, talked about his community history project where he and other volunteers went door to door in certain historic Indianapolis neighborhoods, soliciting photo donations for a community archive and advising people on how to preserve their personal digital photos; Freeman said that he and his colleagues use the LC personal digital archiving resources. Jenny Bunn said that in the UK, community digital archives are common and there is not much discussion about personal digital archiving.
Santi Thompson, of the University of Houston Libraries, talked about his research into what patrons do with the photos they download from the library. He said that patrons use the images mostly for non-academic purposes, such as genealogy and oral history, and that the images touch people’s lives in ways that the library didn’t anticipate. “Repositories need to recognize the personal impact and usage from a digital library,” said Thompson. “We need to engage in more conversations about personal usage.” Pekka Uotila, of the Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences, described his own family oral history project that grew from “a simple story” to “an epic story,” branching off into side stories that included other family members and even a division of the Norwegian military. It was evident from Uotila’s presentation that family history could eventually expand and overlap with local and community history, and that proper archival practices and metadata tagging can help the process.
Several presentations looked at the role of the archivist in a digital library. Arjun Sabharwal, from the University of Toledo Libraries, talked about accessioning personal digital archives and how, for instance, a digital archivist would work closely with a donor in making certain things unaccessible — the digital equivalent of redacting a document. Carly Dearborn from Purdue University Libraries also spoke about the role of the archivist in digital collections.
A few quick mentions: Nick Krabbenhoeft, an independent researcher affiliated with our NDIIPP/NDSA partners at Educopia, spoke about his research with Google glass and how he determined that it cannot save digital stuff easily; Zach Vowell, from California Polytechnic State University, spoke about his work in developing a software library and gathering vintage hardware; and Mark Middleton, a genealogist and independent software engineer, said that genealogists care a lot about digital photos and documents and they have a special interest in having digital stuff be properly archived.
By the end of the conference, there was a palpable fervor in the room for more collaboration in — and communication about — the various aspects of personal digital archiving. At the Library of Congress, we are responding to that demand by creating a Personal Digital Archiving subgroup of the NDSA working groups. We encourage anyone interested in personal digital archiving to join the NDSA and any current NDSA partners with an interest in this area to get in touch with us about it. Even if you do not qualify for NDSA membership at this time, there will be opportunities to participate and contribute to the discussion. Email firstname.lastname@example.org about details.
Finally, one of the coolest bits of general-public advice spontaneously erupted during a discussion of how to get people to sort, appraise and prioritize their own digital possessions, much as a trained archivist would. Someone said, “Which photo would you post to Facebook? That’s the one you should backup.”