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3 Things to Change the World for Personal Digital Archiving

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I am relentlessly optimistic about the future of personal digital archiving. There is simply too much at stake, in my mind, to feel anything but hopeful.

Let’s face it, though: it’s hard. A well-regarded expert who has spent years studying personal digital habits tells me that people just won’t invest time and effort to preserve their personal files. Individuals are said to be hopelessly passive in this space: they are content to let content spread helter-skelter among the shifting assortment of devices and services they use to create and share digital material.

3 things, by tedxdeusto, on Flickr
3 things, by tedxdeusto, on Flickr

Sadly, this is the way it is for many people. Photos pile up on smartphones. Social media platforms come and go. Email and text messages reside in siloed accounts. Passive dependency on technology that doesn’t care about the future is begging for a world-wide personal digital disaster.

Unlike my learned colleague, however, I don’t see this situation as inevitable. It can be improved–in fact, it has to be improved. It may take time and the disappearance of digital memories for countless families, but eventually the loss will be so keenly felt that people will demand a solution.

So all we need to do is change the world. Here are three things I think need to happen to make digital archiving easier for people and communities.

1. Greater awareness. I’ve talked with hundreds of people at outreach events and the large majority haven’t heard much about managing personal digital files. Most people also need instruction about how to take the most basic steps, such as making duplicate copies on separate media. And many who have thought about personal digital archiving associate it strictly with digitizing analog items, not with preserving the resulting digital copies. The good news is that people quickly understand the issue when it is clearly explained.

2. Radically better tools and services. Irony abounds here: in the midst of an amazing revolution in computer technology, there is a near total lack of systems designed with digital preservation in mind. Instead, we have technology seemingly designed to work against  digital preservation. The biggest single issue is that we are encouraged to scatter content so broadly among so many different and changing services that it practically guarantees loss. We need programs to automatically capture, organize and keep our content securely under our control.

3. Attention to scale. There are two scales of concern. One is the huge (and rapidly growing) number of people around the world who create huge (and rapidly growing) volumes of digital content. A generation ago, a family would be lucky to have a few hundred photographs, letters and other memory materials. Today, millions of people have billions of personal digital files, and preservation solutions need to be democratic and multi-national. The other scale is technological. As a recent article points out, current limits on internet bandwidth, storage practices and storage costs hinder personal digital archiving–and the problem is set to get worse with a new series of “lifelogging” devices coming onto the market. Information technology needs to make a giant leap to bridge the gap.

 What do you think? Is personal digital archiving always going to be too hard for people? If not, what has to change?

Comments (6)

  1. One way I see preservation of digital content is in the Scrapbooking world. A whole industry of digital scrappers has risen to manipulate digital photos and record the associated memories. Ironically, what makes this significant is the output of these scrapped photos to prints! There is an emphasis on archival quality prints as another layer of preservation, and if we are honest it will be the few images that made their way onto a page or into a book that will survive the ages. This might be a good thing, for the curation of the collection that occurs when choosing what to scrap cuts through the clutter of innumerable images.

  2. Generally I agree that all this digital management stuff is too hard for most people to do. The process seems complex, time, consuming, expensive and a total faff. My experience comes from students who don’t backup their data/thesis/coursework and don’t know how to use two USB sticks in a storage strategy. If our role is to support personal digital archiving – and I believe it is – then we must highlight ways to make personal archiving easier, simpler and the process more transparent. My top three things we should do; 1) Simplify the story, cut the detail and get to the basics, 2) explain why we need to preserve our personal data, who benefits and how, 3) make the point that not everythig needs to be saved for ever.

    • Dave: Excellent points! I agree that simplification is essential, although hitting the right balance is tricky. We’ve attempted to do that in our own guidance. It would be helpful to know just how useful different groups find such advice.

  3. My mother, who liked to take family pictures, starting in 1920, has about 4,000. They are resting in Picasa right now. My son has taken that many of his son who is 9 years old….the majority of which are not good pictures, don’t tell him I said so! sometimes you can’t even see the person who is the subject. What is the answer when people may be of a generation we have created that thinks everything they do is worth recognition.

  4. Prior to digital technology, hardcopy documentation and memorabilia were stored as items of cultural memory by a family member responsible for transferring to the next generation. That person had traditionally been the one aware(1) of the importance of preservation tools (2) as well as content (3). Somewhere between analog and digital the element of transferring cultural memory to the next generation was lost. So perhaps along with 1, 2, and 3, we also need to re-introduce into our classrooms the understanding of cultural memory and the new methods necessary for capture and transfer of the content comprising that memory … sort of a number 4 in changing the world for personal digital archiving. And in many ways that is just what the Signal staff is accomplishing with these articles exploring and promoting the need for Digital Preservation! Good job and much thanks.

    • Marcia: Thanks for your insightful comment.


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