Digital Archiving: Making It Personal at the Public Library

The following is a guest post from Samantha Thomason,  web developer at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and chair of the Virginia Library Association’s Local History, Genealogy and Oral History Forum. 

Campell County Public Library personal digital archiving station. Photo by Campbell County Public Library.

Campell County Public Library personal digital archiving station. Photo by Campbell County Public Library.

Because personal digital archiving covers so much territory — from scanning to cloud storage to estate planning — it is easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking of ways to implement new programs and events. However, information professionals who are even just a little bit tech savvy and are well-attuned to their customers’ needs are perfectly poised to craft agile, low-overhead, tailored programs that will make strides in creating a more informed public, one customer at a time.

The personal digital archiving program recently started by Jordan Welborn, technology librarian at Virginia’s Campbell County Public Library System, is a great example of how to put theory into practice and how to get started quickly and cheaply.

After viewing a Library of Congress webinar presented during Preservation Week last year, Welborn was inspired to create a personal digital archiving program for her library customers. Undaunted by a small budget, Welborn got a six-week pilot program up and running in the fall of 2013 for less than $300 by using an existing library laptop, purchasing an inexpensive video capture device, picking up a VCR at Goodwill and partnering with a local historical society to purchase a scanner.

Marlene DeBoer digitizing VHS tapes of her grandchildren who are now in their mid-twenties. Photo by Campell County Public Library.

Marlene DeBoer digitizing VHS tapes of her grandchildren who are now in their mid-twenties. Photo by Campell County Public Library.

Before using the equipment, Welborn encouraged patrons to attend a computer-file organization class designed to teach beginners basic file management. Customers then signed up for two-hour appointments to use the archiving equipment. During the first half hour, Welborn offered hands-on instruction, then customers spent the remainder of the time using the equipment on their own. Welborn was close by to offer assistance if needed. Most customers caught on quickly and they only required minimal extra assistance.  Both the scanner and the VHS capture device came with relatively user-friendly software that customers were easily able to understand. Customers provided their own storage devices.

Welborn promoted her program through a press release, in-house flyers and signs, and the library website and Facebook page. Within the six-week test period, Welborn had about 15 participants, with half of those making four or more visits. Two customers requested extra sessions to continue archiving their VHS collections. Each customer was archiving decades worth of VHS tapes, which prolonged the project for several more months.

Marlene DeBoer digitizing VHS tapes of her grandchildren. Photo by Campbell County Public Library.

Marlene DeBoer digitizing VHS tapes of her grandchildren. Photo by the Campbell County Public Library.

The feedback received from the trial period was overwhelmingly positive. While the scanning and the VHS capture were both time-consuming endeavors (the VHS capture is in real time), the customers who participated thought it was better than having to invest in their own equipment or pay an outside agency for digitization services. Campbell County Public Library now has plans to provide the archiving service at its other branches.

Welborn described how her program not only served a functional need but also helped to create connections with customers. “On a human note, it was quite a special experience to get to spend time with the people who came in to archive their memories,” said Welborn. ”Some people brought in shoe boxes filled with photos they hadn’t looked at in years.  It would often trigger a bit of nostalgic storytelling and once, even tears.  I enjoyed taking a few moments out of a hectic day to slow down and just listen.  Sometimes in all the hustle — trying to serve so many people each day — I forget that all of us have a cache of memories and a story to tell.  It was an awesome experience to help some of those folks preserve their stories.”

As with any new program, you must carefully consider the needs of your particular customers. Maybe your customers are more concerned with the ins and outs of cloud storage or archiving text messages. Regardless of the type of library or organization you work in, or your customer base, Welborn’s program is an inspiring example of how librarians and other information professionals can encourage digital stewardship at the one-on-one level.

As we move towards a reality in which our personal lives and our digital lives are inseparable, digital stewardship will not be a desirable skill. It will be a survival skill. Those with a background in historical resources or archives have been facing the challenges and reaping the benefits of digital preservation for some time, but this is now an issue that touches anyone whose customers have even a small stake in the digital world, whether it be grandma, the tech-laden urbanite or the digital-native college student.

No longer a niche concern, digital archiving has indeed become personal and we information professionals must be leaders in raising public awareness and helping our customers acquire the skills necessary to tackle this aspect of information literacy.

One Comment

  1. Mark S Middleton
    June 11, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    This was a very good article. A few more technical details would be nice (a 2nd article?). For example what files formats did they use (TIFF, JPEG)? What did they save the files to (DVD, Removable drive)? or other specifications I’m curious if they gathered any metrics on the number of file scanned and/or digited.

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