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Save Our African American Treasures: Dallas

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The following is a guest post by Erin Engle, Digital Archivist, NDIIPP.

Imagine starting something from scratch. A home project, a work project, or maybe you’re even baking a cake, from scratch.  Now imagine what the dedicated staff of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture are doing – they are building a new museum – literally – from the ground up.

Photo by Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution
Me Talking About Saving Your Digital Memories. Photo by Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution

The NMAAHC, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is dedicated to exploring African American culture and history.  Even though it’s scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015, curators, research historians, project managers and staff are busy building the collections and creating exhibits.

They are also holding public programs to raise awareness about the new museum, and also to educate the public about preserving important, family items that may be kept in the back of closets or in the bottom of trunks.  Save Our African American Treasures is one of these programs, and the Library of Congress (and yours truly) is privileged to be a part of this wonderful initiative.

On June 18-19, 2011, the Dallas Public Library hosted a weekend-long “Treasures” program, featuring one-on-one consultations with expert reviewers about caring for personal items.  Informal group preservation presentations also provided tips on saving items from textiles to photographs.  This is the third time we’ve participated in the “Treasures” program; last year, we were part of the presentations in Topeka, Kansas and Detroit, Michigan. In Dallas, I gave a talk on Preserving Your Digital Memories.

Talking to people about saving their digital memories is something I think about often, and I’m trying to find new ways to connect personal collections to the larger concept of digital preservation in a meaningful way.  We think about our family memorabilia tucked away in shoeboxes, scrapbooks or photo albums, and it is important to pass them on down through our families.  Now, as we’re creating more and more memories in digital form, we need to start thinking about ensuring that our digital content – the memories we’re making today with our digital photo or video cameras – is also passed down. These memories are just as important as the shoeboxes full of photos, letters, concert tickets and birthday cards that people brought to the “Treasures” program.  But we don’t have the equivalent storage solution of a “digital shoebox.”

Save Our African American Treasures. Photo by Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution
Save Our African American Treasures. Photo by Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution

In Dallas, I talked to a woman with two small children in tow. I asked her if she took a lot of digital photos and videos of her kids and her face lit up as she said, “Of course!” She had these memories on her computer, and she’s been thinking about backing them up on an external hard drive.  As we talked and I gave her some information from NDIIPP’s personal archiving guidance, she seemed to understand that backing up your digital content on a hard drive isn’t a “digital shoebox.” To make sure that you can access the content in the next 5 or 10 years, you need to be vigilant and manage the content on the hard drive as well as the drive itself.

The tips we developed are simple, low-level steps to help non-experts work through the beginning stages of caring for digital files. But to be honest, these tips are not low-effort. Going about saving your digital memories is a project.  And if you haven’t thought about it yet or are just starting to think about it, you may be starting from scratch.  NDIIPP staff worry about their own personal collections – and we’re surrounded by it everyday! But just like the staff at the NMAAHC who started building a national museum from scratch, it is possible and you can build a meaningful personal digital collection that you can share for years to come.

The “Treasures” program is a fantastic public service, bringing a national collection initiative to local communities.   It’s also a great opportunity for the Library and NDIIPP to reach out to a wider audience. We’re learning to talk to people in engaging ways about how to keep their personal digital memories safe.

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