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The Challenge of Teaching Personal Archiving

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The following is a guest post by Ellysa Stern Cahoy, Education & Behavioral Sciences Librarian Instruction Coordinator, Penn State University Libraries.

“What’s in your library?”

I love to ask this question of the college students that I teach, as they are (whether they realize it or not) continually building their own personal libraries on their laptops, their iPads, even their mobile phones.

Ellysa Cahoy
Ellysa Stern Cahoy

As online information proliferates, the physical library is receding in importance. Personal libraries — collections of articles, photos, documents, email and other information — are of primary importance now. My job as an academic librarian has been refocused towards helping my users navigate, mine and build their personal information collections.

While today’s graduate students (or new faculty members) may not want to hear that they are now also their own personal librarian, they are. Whether you are a student or not, everyone is actively building collections of personal and/or professional information. Increasingly, the job of librarians is to help our users effectively build, search and organize their own personal and scholarly information collections.

In “The Long Term Fate of Our Digital Belongings: Toward a Service Model for Personal Archives,” Cathy Marshall identified the four greatest user challenges with regard to storing and organizing personal online materials:

  1. Accumulation (too many copies of too many things)
  2. Distribution (multiple copies in many places, online and on storage devices)
  3. Curation (what to save and where to save it)
  4. Long-term access (the ever-lingering challenge of migrating materials to new formats when old formats expire).

These challenges are significant and impact the lifespan of current knowledge and historical preservation. If we expect our children and future generations to preserve knowledge, sustained education on how to archive personal information collections is essential.

I am working with Pennsylvania public librarians on a grant to develop digital literacies in public library staff. The goal is for all librarians and library staff to feel at ease with the technology that their patrons use, such as iPads, digital cameras, and laptops.

Public libraries are a magnet for patron questions about technology, and while many public library staff are technology whizzes, not everyone feels comfortable helping patrons download photos from their camera. Our grant aims to develop that comfort zone with technology, as well as provide food for thought on ways to engage people in telling their personal stories through technology with photos, video and more.

As I work with public librarians and my own students, I realize that just as central as learning how to use technology is helping people navigate Marshall’s user challenges for personal archiving. How can we help people:

  • understand how to better manage their personal collections
  • manage the accumulation of photos and documents (and duplicate copies)
  • manage the distribution of that collection
  • decide what to keep and what to purge
  • and move materials to new formats when needed?

Above all, perhaps, is the importance of printing out and making physical materials, whether for professional or sentimental reasons.

Indeed, we are now all our own librarians. While it is an exciting time, the information cloud leveled so that we all can build our own collections, it is also a weighty challenge and one that I look forward to helping my students and others confront and tackle.

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