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Reality Check: What Most People Actually Do with Their Personal Digital Archives

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Photo courtesy of Noah Lenstra

While Noah Lenstra was working on a website about African-American history in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, many of the people he met at local public libraries, churches and businesses told him they had personal and family memorabilia they wanted to digitize, or they had digital stuff that they didn’t know what to do with. Lenstra, a PhD student at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library & Information Science, saw that there was a need in the community for personal digital archiving guidance. So with the help of a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, he gave a series of much-appreciated public workshops in various cities and towns around the state on the topic of “Digital Local & Family history.” The workshops yielded a few startling revelations for Lenstra.

Like any good educator, Lenstra not only wanted to share information and confirm the effectiveness of his work, he also wanted to observe the participants to see what he could learn from their actions. So he spent a lot of time working shoulder to shoulder with them, huddled in groups around computers, watching what they did online, asking questions and taking notes.

As he expected, genealogy and local history were popular (they have long been a draw for public libraries) and almost 70% of the attendees told him they were equally interested in both. But he also noticed two striking trends. First, librarians — particularly front-line staff – were hungry for guidance about personal digital archiving and some traveled great distances to take the workshop. And second, while people in the community accepted his didactic “eat your vegetables” personal digital archiving advice (the kind I dole out all the time), they had already organically developed a fun approach on their own that they used all the time: they uploaded their personal archives to Facebook and other social media sites to share it with their family, friends and community. Although a vocal minority of participants had many privacy concerns with the “social web” and did not use it, most had started using these tools both to share personal archives with others and to find content in others’ personal archives that documented facets of their own lives.

Photo courtesy of Noah Lenstra

Lenstra didn’t rely solely on showing PowerPoint slides in his workshops. “We tried to make the workshops as interactive as possible,” said Lenstra. “I introduced them to sites like 1000Memories (now part of and, and had them create accounts. We had hands-on scanning exercises. I also encouraged participants to use the computers to look up things I mentioned during the workshops.”

But Facebook kept popping up in conversations.

Eventually Lenstra realized that the widespread use of Facebook indicated a need and desire for an easy-to-use tool that would enable users to stay in touch with people in the present and connect with their past and with others who shared that past. “People were interested in collaborative platforms for sharing some of their personal archives with others,” said Lenstra. “They wanted to use their personal archives for purposes that went beyond them as individuals.”

Connection is key to understanding the phenomenon. Lenstra said, “People want to make connections between things they have in their own personal archives and things that may be in other people’s personal archives, between one person’s history and other people’s histories.”

Lenstra gave an example of a man whose father played in a local band in the 1960s and 1970s. The son uploaded a photo of his father and his band to a site that had the theme, “You know you grew up in Urbana-Champaign if you remember….” Lenstra said, “People who were related to the other members of the group started tagging their own family members. In no time, all the people in the photograph were identified and then other people started sharing their memories of seeing the band perform. That kind of thing happens all the time, where a personal item quickly becomes something that’s not just about the family, it’s about the place where that family lived. In people’s memories, both the family and the place are bound together.”

Another fact that Lenstra teased out from the tangle of observations is that, for some people, Facebook has become a convenient digital repository. “I’ve heard people say that their computers crashed and they had a lot of photographs lost,” said Lenstra. “And they were able to recover many photographs through Facebook because they had put so many of their photos on it. I am not saying that Facebook is a solution, but I think pragmatically for some people it may be a more viable option than taking on the responsibility of backing up their files every five years or so. I remain dubious that people are actually going to do that.”

Photo courtesy of Noah Lenstra.

Setting the workshops in public libraries was a smart choice. Lenstra said that public libraries have a unique role in the community and libraries are increasingly playing a more active role in helping their communities with personal digital matters. About 25 percent of the workshop attendees were staff from public libraries from the cities where the workshops were held and from the surrounding towns.

Librarians are also getting more involved with local history than ever and, by extension, with individual history. Lenstra cites one example of a librarian from a small town in southern Illinois who developed a local history Facebook page. Occasionally she would post photos on Facebook and within a short time people from her social network would identify some of the photos and the people in them. Lenstra said, “Another time the librarian wanted to purchase a local historical artifact that she found on eBay, so she just posted a message on her page to the effect that the library wanted to purchase it and she was soliciting donations. Within a day, people had pledged enough money to cover the cost. She is enthusiastic about how she — a public librarian — can catalyze the attention of people in her community around sharing local and family histories.”

Lenstra gave an example of how a library in Champaign-Urbana recognized and responded to a digital-preservation need in their community. The library has two publicly accessible scanners intended for patrons to scan copies from the local archives. “But now, the scanner is used more by people who bring in personal things that they want to scan,” said Lenstra. “The library didn’t plan for this but the scanners are a resource that people want and need, so now the library is advertising the scanners as resources for people to digitize portions of family photographs or whatever. Clearly there is a real opportunity to reinvent this service area.”

Lenstra’s next workshop is on June 22 and he sees it as an occasion to take what he’s learned so far and fine tune the workshop. He’s still mulling over questions like, “How can libraries make Facebook work for them?” and “Is there something libraries can do or create that fulfills the same role that Facebook now fills?” Lenstra said, “We’re still trying to figure out what is motivating people. What do they get that’s personally valuable out of some of these social media sites?”

He plans to meet eventually with library administrations to diagnose what is going on in their libraries and explore ways that libraries could better share local resources, serve their community’s digital preservation needs and support local and family history. Perhaps they could partner with other local institutions or maybe act as a community digital repository. Lenstra said, “One of the libraries we worked with had a partnership with the county government and the county government did all of their IT support. That kind of resource-sharing partnership makes new things possible without draining existing resources.”

But it’s clear that technology needs to catch up to the way people behave – which partially explains the popularity of social media – and information professionals need to acknowledge how people actually do things. Despite our best intentions and our wishes for more people to practice good personal digital archiving, the number of people who actually backup their files is small compared to the number of people who upload many of those same files to Facebook. This fact is backed up by Microsoft Research’s Cathy Marshall, an early leader in research on personal digital archiving. In a Library of Congress  presentation, she said, “Nobody really does backup. They secretly hope that someone else is doing backup.”

Lenstra made a similar observation. He said, “I don’t think most people see personal digital archiving as something inherently useful. Many see personal archives as a means to some other kind of end. And so when we do talk about it to them, what kind of language can we use that wouldn’t be overwhelming or just be perceived as an onerous burden on their time?”

Lenstra is not suggesting that, despite the general public inaction about “what you should do,” we shouldn’t stop offering personal digital archiving help. People might not backup their files but they should still be aware of good preservation practices. And, in response to how people actually do things, we information professionals should re-think our approach.

Public libraries are the common meeting ground for all of us. As for how to improve the situation, Lenstra said, “I’d like to see more public librarians get the support they need. And I’d like to see more public libraries offer services that help people, so people feel like they don’t just have to do things on Facebook…help people understand that there are options or resources in their community to help them preserve their personal digital stuff. I may be idealistic but I’m hoping that, with support, more public libraries can and will help.”

Comments (4)

  1. Noah Lenstra here. Just a quick comment to acknowledge the support I receive at the University of Illinois, which makes this work possible. Especially supportive has been the Community Informatics Research Lab at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science (co-directors Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams), the institutional anchor for these projects. Hear more at eChicago ( and our lab’s Digital Divide Lecture Series (

  2. I like the practical side of this column. I must admit that even as a professional archivist, I don’t back up and preserve my personal digital archives as rigorously as I know I should, so why should I expect others to,

  3. What is the resolution of most pictures posted to Facebook? What is the likelihood that pictures archived in this manner would be usable for any kind of serious project, i.e., publishing a family history, a school or community history, etc.? I am sorry to read that the general public seems to think this is “archival.” On the other hand, public library participation is encouraging.

    • Marieta,

      Thanks for your comment. The fact that some people use Facebook as a de facto archive clearly shows us that we have work to do in educating the general public. Ignorance of resources is not the general public’s fault. The question now is, are we information professionals going to just wring our hands and “tsk tsk” and theorize about it or are we going to aggressively do something to help? Public libraries are the meeting grounds for us to engage communities and, I agree, public library participation is encouraging. — Mike

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