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Personal Digital Archiving 2012 in San Francisco

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For its third consecutive year, the Personal Digital Archiving conference brought together a diverse range of presenters and audience members with different approaches to “personal archiving.” There were a few case studies in which the researchers worked directly with people and reported their findings; most of the presentations were about tools, data analysis and social media ownership.

Personal Digital Archiving
Personal Digital Archiving 2012 at the Internet Archive. The headquarters was once a Christian Science Church.

Droll, down-to-earth Cathy Marshall, a Principal Researcher in Microsoft Research’s Silicon Valley Lab, was the hit of the conference, taking the audience on an infotainment fun ride with her slides, observations and survey-based conclusions. Marshall is a realist who reveals what people actually do — out of laziness or because they’re too busy — as opposed to what digital preservationists would like them to do. “It’s a lot more fun to create and discover (digital) things than to curate them,” she said.

Marshall said (and this statement was immediately Tweeted by a half-dozen audience members seconds after she said it) that the family IT person is usually not the family archivist. Therefore, we may have unreasonably high expectations for personal archiving because the person who knows how to do it (the family geek) is usually not the person who is interested in doing it (the family archivist).

Marshall also said that privacy and copyrights around peoples’ publicly displayed web content is an issue. “It’s not really (online) storage that gets people worked up, it’s the potential for access and re-use,” said Marshall. She showed how people re-use photos that they “find” online and she said most of us have a loose sense of ethics and morals about using someone else’s online graphics.

In a Q&A session, Howard Besser — professor of cinema studies and director of New York University’s moving image archiving & preservation program — echoed this concern for privacy. Besser spoke about NYU’s work chronicling Occupy Wall Street and how a majority of the participants were wary about why anyone – especially an institution — would want to archive video, audio and other bits of information about them. He said their suspicions were understandable though. “They want control of it,” said Besser.

Stan James, a software engineer, was another audience favorite with his ongoing personal story (which he introduced at last year’s PDA conference) about working with his father to scan and put online about 25,000 of their family photos. James talked about what software worked well for them and what didn’t, what resources were more user-friendly and how James got other older relatives to help tag the online photos; they helped identify people, places and events in the photos that James’s father couldn’t. His experience demonstrated -– among other things -– that such a project helps bring families together but it also was a lesson in how difficult average commercial software and hardware can be for non-technical people to use and how daunting the “personal archiving” process can be for them. James developed few easy-to-use tools for his project, including a one-step interface that enables his dad to easily scan photos.

Sarah Kim, from the University of Texas at Austin, reported on her research interviewing twenty people about their personal digital archiving plans for after they die. Her findings included, for example, that some people’s motivation for leaving behind digital archives was the wish to be remembered while some only wanted to leave behind something that might be useful in some way to society.

I gave a presentation about the Library of Congress’s personal digital archiving work. I talked about the types of digital stuff that the average person might save — such as photos — and how the Library creates and disseminates information to help people preserve those photos. The Library has also learned a great deal by interacting with the general public at events such as the National Book Festival. The greatest lesson the general public has taught us is the need to simplify our information so we can communicate better. This need for simplicity was also at the heart of Stan James’ experience with his family archive work.

In my PDA presentation I also talked about the Library’s work reaching out to local communities by working with local public libraries to help educate the public about personal digital archiving.

On a related topic, Ellysa Stern Cahoy, from Penn State University Libraries, spoke of the need to increase digital literacy among librarians, not only for personal and scholarly archiving but to prepare for other information technology needs, such as advising the public about digital archiving. This is a topic that is exciting librarians and steadily gaining momentum: librarians as digital information specialists serving their communities. We will we will write more about this in detail in upcoming issues of the Signal.

Lori Kendall, from the University of Illinois Urbana Champage, spoke about online genealogy and family history sites. She said that the current surge of interest in genealogy can be traced, in part, back to the self-absorbed “human potential” movement of the 1970s. Genealogy subsumes a person’s ancestors into a part of one’s own story, Kendell said, and “…depicts individuals as composites of their own heritage.” When you view history from that angle, it is all about you; genealogy positions you as a unique endpoint.

Megan Alicia Winget, from the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed user behavior, looking for patterns in the way people bookmark electronic books and use social media tools such as FourSquare and Yelp. Aaron Straup Cope presented, Parallel Flickr, an open-source tool to extract your photos from Flickr. Sudheendra Hangal and Peter Chan, from Stanford University Libraries, talked about Muse, a tool that indexes your emails and enables you to sift through and analyze the content via methods such as the sentiment of the text.

Jonathan Harris presented Cowbird , an artistic approach to oral history that builds on public participation. Their website states, “Our long-term goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on.”


  1. Mike,
    Thank you for reporting on this conference. As a librarian, genealogist, amateur and “wannabe professional” archivist, and former film/video editor I am very interested in these topics. I wish I could have been there. I really am curious about Stan James’ scanning projects and tools that he developed to help amateurs scan photos. I think efforts like his could address some of the behaviors that Cathy Marshall revealed about peoples real archiving tendencies.

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