NDIIPP managed to acquire a brief hipster sheen at the recent South by Southwest gathering in Austin, TX. The annual SXSW event bills itself as “the unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies,” and “the premier destination for discovery.” To my admittedly unpracticed eye, the event indeed looked like it lives at the epicenter of creative digital culture.
I had a great time representing NDIIPP amongst the hip, especially in presenting at an SXSW Interactive Conference session, Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death. Our panel talked about technical, social and emotional issues associated with personal digital archiving.
I spoke from the perspective of a professional archivist, one who take cares of select information in an institutional setting. Among other things, this work helps people find information about their ancestors. I showed an ambrotype portrait in the Library of Congress of a civil war soldier, and noted how a descendent was freshly thrilled to recognize him as long-lost “Uncle Dave.”
Today, everybody is their own archivist. It’s up to us to decide what from our potentially huge personal digital collections to save and how to do it.
The big problem we face with our vast digital collections is that many of us are poor managers of our own data. Few of us take the time to organize our digital lives. Many people don’t fully understand their archival role, and this puts their personal digital legacy at risk.
This means that the Uncle Daves of today might well be living a tenuous life in messy personal family digital collections or intermingled with hundreds of billions—trillions?—of other photographs on the web.
I suggested two big issues that need to be addressed. First, librarians and archivist must have more involvement with personal digital archiving. We need to raise awareness about the need for people to preserve their stuff and we need to provide basic guidance for doing so. I noted that NDIIPP has started doing this on its website.
Second, the technological community has to provide better tools and services to support personal digital archiving. I recalled Tim O’Reilly’s talk at the NDIIPP partners meeting last year when said that preservation functionality needs to be baked into tools to create a distributed stewardship mindset. He saw this as necessary because people must work outside of institutions to save their rich streams of content.
A number of creative challenges arise here. One is a desperate need for tools and systems to help us get control over our content—and the content left behind by loved ones. These tools must be highly automated and very easy to use.
We also must have new approaches to preserve personal digital files, both for ourselves and for future users. We need to work on porting the values long represented by libraries and archives to personal collections. I’m talking about helping people keep their information durable, persistent and usable over time.
I closed by acknowledging that it’s going to take a while for technologists, as well as librarians and archivists, to help personal digital archiving advance. But if we see value in helping future generations find digital Uncle Daves, this is something we have to address with some innovative breakthroughs.