“Elementary!” A Sleuth Activity for Personal Digital Archiving

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Published in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, which appeared in The Strand Magazine

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” in The Strand Magazine. Illustration by Sidney Paget (1860-1908). On Wikimedia.

As large institutions and organizations continue to implement preservation processes for their digital collections, a smattering of self-motivated information professionals are trying to reach out to the rest of the world’s digital preservation stakeholders —  individuals and small organizations — to help them manage their digital collections.

Part of that challenge is just making people aware that:
1. Their digital possessions are at risk of becoming inaccessible
2. They need to take responsibility for preserving their own stuff
3. The preservation process is easy.

The Library of Congress offers personal digital archiving resources and takes an active role in outreach. [Watch for the announcement of Personal Digital Archiving 2015 next April in New York City.] And we are always happy to discover novel approaches by our colleagues to teaching personal digital archiving. Consider the work of one group of information professionals from Georgia.

The Society of Georgia Archivists, the Atlanta Chapter of ARMA International and the Georgia Library Association have collaborated on a curriculum for a personal digital archiving workshop that addresses the basic problems and solutions. Among the steps they outline, they emphasize the need to make files “findable.”

To that end they devised an activity called “Find the Person in the Personal Digital Archive” (the activity data set and all the workshop materials are free and available for download, reuse and remixing). The premise is simple and the game is fun but it drives home an important message about organizing your files. The producers created a folder filled with files and sub-folders — messy, disorganized files; pointless sub-folders; mis-named files; highly personal files mixed with business files; encrypted files and obsolete file formats, many sourced from the Open Preservation Foundation’s Format Corpus — and they invite people to participate in a forensics activity, to look through all the files and directories and try to piece together some information about the owner of the files.

Sample of random files in a folder

Courtesy of the Society of Georgia Archivists.

As the user looks through the folder, there are questions to answer, such as “How would you describe the contents?”, “How did the creator of the archive name and arrange the files?” and “How do the features of the archive (such as file names, organization scheme, file format, etc.) make some of the records easy to understand and some of them impossible to understand?”

Though the goal is to deduce the identity and fate of the owner through various clues and “Aha!” moments, in doing the activity the users ends up making judgments about what is useful (like descriptive file and folder names) and what is not (files called “things.xml” and “untitled.txt”). Poring over a fake mess such as this drives home a point: how do you organize your own personal stuff? If someone, such as a loved one, had to go through your digital files, how easy or difficult would it be for them to find specific files and make sense of it all? Are you leaving a mess for someone else to trudge through?

Wendy Hagenmaier, the outreach manager for the Society of Georgia Archivists, is one of the workshop producers. Hagenmaier wanted to reach beyond her community to demystify digital archives stewardship and explain to the general public why digital preservation matters and how they can preserve their own stuff. She researched other like-minded organizations in Georgia to find interested parties for the workshop. “This topic really seems to be taking off in public libraries,” said Hagenmaier,”and genealogists are very much interested in personal digital archiving, though I don’t know if the topic comes up in their circles on its own.”

Woman giving a slide presentation.

Michelle Kirk, president of the Atlanta Chapter of ARMA, gives a presentation. Photo courtesy of the Society of Georgia Archivists.

Hagenmaier — and her colleagues Michelle Kirk, Cathy Miller and Oscar Gittemeier — geared the workshop toward information professionals and encouraged the workshop attendees to go out and teach the workshop to others so that the message will reach the general public in a sort of trickle-down effect. So far she has presented the curriculum at a “train the trainer” webinar, a workshop and at a Georgia State Archives genealogy event.

The Society of Georgia Archivists also offer a Personal Digital Archiving Workshop Outreach Grant to help information professionals in Georgia promote the idea that librarians, archivists and records managers are a source of expertise for assisting individuals (the public, family members, students, corporate employees, etc.) with their personal digital archiving needs. The grant will be given to individuals who apply for the grant after hosting and teaching a workshop at their institutions or in their communities, using the curriculum materials designed by SGA, GLA and Atlanta ARMA.

Hagenmaier is fervent about getting the word out to people, making them aware that they casually create and use digital stuff in their everyday lives, so digital stewardship could and should be just as casual and effortless. She feels that knowledge of digital stewardship will empower people and assure them that their digital files can be safe if they keep them safe. She said that in the course of her work she sees in people a fear of the unknown, a huge anxiety about the fate of digital files. To illustrate her point she cites a moment during her genealogy conference presentation when she asked a group of genealogists, “How many of you think you will be able to access your digital files in ten years?” No one raised a hand.

“They are hopeful but not confident,” said Hagenmaier. “Personal digital archiving is still foreign to people. It is important for us to just get the word out that they can preserve their own stuff.”

Personal Digital Archiving 2015 in NYC — “Call for Papers” Deadline Approaching

The Personal Digital Archiving Conference 2015 will take place in New York City for the first time. The conference will be hosted by our NDIIPP and NDSA partners at New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program April 24-26, 2015. Presentation submissions for Personal Digital Archiving are due Monday, December 8th, 2014 by 11:59 […]

Preserving Your Personal Memories: Students Create Workshop on Photo Archiving

The following is a guest post by Lea Harrison, Lindsey Bright & Michelle Datiles, all graduate students in the digital curation class of Dr. Jane Zhang, Catholic University of America Inspired by the Library of Congress’ Personal Digital Archiving initiatives, our small team of three Catholic University of America grad students in the Library & […]

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.  Because personal digital archiving covers so much territory — from scanning to cloud storage to estate planning — it is easy to […]

Public Service Libraries and Personal Digital Archiving

The Texas Library Association Annual Conference started earlier this week, and I’ll be heading out there on Friday April 11 to participate in an interactive session with the TLA’s Digital Libraries Roundtable on the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and some of NDIIPP’s initiatives related to Personal Digital Archiving. Our parents and grandparents saved hand-written diaries, […]

Personal Digital Archiving 2014

The fifth annual Personal Digital Archiving conference is on April 10-11 and you can still register online until tomorrow, April 1. This conference attracts a variety of information-technology professionals with a range of digital-preservation interests, mainly oriented toward the needs of individuals rather than the digital collections of cultural institutions. Topics include – but are […]

Things to Know About Personal Digital Archiving 2014

Personal Digital Archiving 2014 will be held at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 10-11, 2014.  This is THE conference that raises awareness among individuals, public institutions and private companies engaged in the creation, preservation and ongoing use of personal digital content.  A key overarching topic will be how libraries, archives and other […]

When it Comes to Keepsakes, What’s the Difference Between Physical and Digital?

I’m cleaning out my office in preparation for retiring on March 7. I’ve accumulated a few mementos during my career, and moving them out stirs up memories. One of my favorite keepsakes is a framed 1986 poster from the National Archives and Records Administration that proclaims “Our Records, Your Responsibilities.” It offers little in the […]

11 Great Digital Preservation Photos for 2013

Curiously, most of us in the digital memory business are hesitant to visually document our own work. Possibly this has to do with the perceived nature of the enterprise, which involves tasks that may seem routine.  But pictures tell an important story, and I set about finding a few that depicted some of the digital preservation […]