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The Results of One Scholar’s Survey: What Are Your Plans for Your Personal Digital Archives?

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The following is a guest post by Sarah Kim from the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin.

Between June 2010 and December 2011, I interviewed 20 people about how they manage and preserve their digital documents and I asked about their long-term plans for their digital stuff. The interviewees were from varied backgrounds, including a policeman, a cartoonist, a restaurant owner, a lawyer, an artist, a designer, a librarian, graduate students, retired professors, a social worker, government employees and a software developer.

"Scrapbook page, spring 1985" on Flickr by litlnemo

During each interview, I asked the participants what they plan for or expect to happen to their digital documents that they leave behind. I got a range of answers that I’ve organized into six categories:

  1. Delete everything.
  2. Near the end of my life, create a condensed collection with selected documents.
  3. Sort and distribute documents to people and entities, such as family documents to individual family members and work-related documents to colleagues.
  4. No particular plan at this moment but will eventually leave instructions in a will for disposal or access.
  5. Allow caretakers or others to manage, select and keep things they want.
  6. Expect materials to be lost or deleted eventually.

People have different plans for different materials. For example, one participant said that he would like to delete everything before he dies. At the same time, he wants to leave certain documents to his daughter, especially digital photos of her — including her ultrasound pictures — that he has been diligently preserving.

One participant said that she wants to create a condensed collection near the end of her life. She wants to be remembered by her family and friends but she also thinks that her documents might be useful for other people, say, for understanding family history or studying how people live in the 21th century. But she has concerns for her privacy and feels uncomfortable about other people looking through her personal files.

Another participant thinks that sorting out her digital files could be an opportunity to review her life. She also prefers to do it herself; she said, “I don’t want to give others a burden of managing my files.”

Some participants will allow caretakers to manage their documents because of either the potential usefulness of personal documents for other people or a wish to be remembered by family and friends. They would also rather let others handle the task because it is difficult to predict what may be useful for others and they are not concerned what happens after their death. Said one participant, “I don’t mind [people looking at my files], if I am dead.”

Here are some reasons that might affect the deletion or preservation of personal digital documents.

Reasons for preservation:
• Potential usefulness for other people, such as family history or other research
• Wish to be remembered by family and friends
• Sentimental attachment to certain documents, photos, recordings, video or other digital things

Reasons for deletion:
• Desire not to leave any trace behind
• Concerns for privacy
• Personal nature of documents (e.g., “My documents are just for me”)
• Belief in future disinterest in my documents

Overall, consideration for future generations in their family or potential audiences seems to be one of the main deciding factors for preservation. Most participants want to either actively or passively pass on at least some personal digital documents after they die. From the archives perspective, this is one of the moments when personal digital documents transform from “evidence of me” into “evidence of us,” as Australian archivist, Sue McKemmish observed.

"Scrapbook Page" on Flickr by Tiggywinkle.

What they want to pass along is not so much about themselves but more about things that can be useful for others. To many participants, the idea of passing belongings along to others seems supported by their own appreciation of having documents passed along to them from previous generations in their family, documents they considered valuable for learning about others more deeply, to explore family history and genealogy, and thus to understand who “I” am.

The theme of “for others” is also quite clear regarding what some participants do not want to leave behind, materials that they consider private. Moreover, the most passive cases, where participants simply expect their digital documents will eventually be lost, is also based on the idea that personal documents are “just for me,” thus “no one will be interested in them.”

Many participants, who have no plans at the moment but hope caretakers will handle their documents, talked about the potential usefulness of their digital documents for other people, not only just for their family and friends but also possibly for unknown people. They would rather let others decide what is useful for them.

I expect that the participants’ thoughts will change as their lives move forward, so I intend to follow them over the next ten or twelve years.

What I learned from the participants is quite simple and by no means surprising: people see their digital documents as having potential value for others. And they want their digital documents be useful for other people in the long run.

As several participants commented, managing digital documents can be burdensome work. I wonder, however, if consideration for the virtual presence of “others” — family member, friends, colleagues and unknown people — can make everyday digital record-keeping a more meaningful and enjoyable practice. I think it can.

Comments (3)

  1. We value photos, in virtually any condition, that are 50 to 150 years old, because there are so few of them.

    However, there are trillions of photos available of everything and everybody from around 1960 onwards, so “old photos” as such can never be as valuable, unless they depict something unique.

  2. I agree with Ged on certain “digital documents” such as (trillions of) pictures being so ubiquitous and easy to come by, especially, nowadays. Therefore, they (something unique) have to be worth preserving.

    But I would like to put in my perspective saying “something unique” can be a very subjective notion for an individual. Pictures of someone’s children might not be very unique to others, but personally, they could carry a great flood of sentimental values. I appreciate that Ms. Sarah Kim (Ph.D. Candidate) is pointing it out that PIM (personal info management) system should be developed in order to assist in preserving personal docs one way or another.

    Kudos to her ceaseless endeavors in research!

  3. I wonder how well those working digital archives and preservation manage their files. We’re so swamped in best practices, but I wonder if we take them to heart. How many of us use ISO 8601 dates to mark versions in file names? How many have an unintelligible string of at the end of file names?

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