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“Elementary!” A Sleuth Activity for Personal Digital Archiving

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Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Published in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, which appeared in The Strand Magazine
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” in The Strand Magazine. Illustration by Sidney Paget (1860-1908). On Wikimedia.

As large institutions and organizations continue to implement preservation processes for their digital collections, a smattering of self-motivated information professionals are trying to reach out to the rest of the world’s digital preservation stakeholders —  individuals and small organizations — to help them manage their digital collections.

Part of that challenge is just making people aware that:
1. Their digital possessions are at risk of becoming inaccessible
2. They need to take responsibility for preserving their own stuff
3. The preservation process is easy.

The Library of Congress offers personal digital archiving resources and takes an active role in outreach. [Watch for the announcement of Personal Digital Archiving 2015 next April in New York City.] And we are always happy to discover novel approaches by our colleagues to teaching personal digital archiving. Consider the work of one group of information professionals from Georgia.

The Society of Georgia Archivists, the Atlanta Chapter of ARMA International and the Georgia Library Association have collaborated on a curriculum for a personal digital archiving workshop that addresses the basic problems and solutions. Among the steps they outline, they emphasize the need to make files “findable.”

To that end they devised an activity called “Find the Person in the Personal Digital Archive” (the activity data set and all the workshop materials are free and available for download, reuse and remixing). The premise is simple and the game is fun but it drives home an important message about organizing your files. The producers created a folder filled with files and sub-folders — messy, disorganized files; pointless sub-folders; mis-named files; highly personal files mixed with business files; encrypted files and obsolete file formats, many sourced from the Open Preservation Foundation’s Format Corpus — and they invite people to participate in a forensics activity, to look through all the files and directories and try to piece together some information about the owner of the files.

Sample of random files in a folder
Courtesy of the Society of Georgia Archivists.

As the user looks through the folder, there are questions to answer, such as “How would you describe the contents?”, “How did the creator of the archive name and arrange the files?” and “How do the features of the archive (such as file names, organization scheme, file format, etc.) make some of the records easy to understand and some of them impossible to understand?”

Though the goal is to deduce the identity and fate of the owner through various clues and “Aha!” moments, in doing the activity the users ends up making judgments about what is useful (like descriptive file and folder names) and what is not (files called “things.xml” and “untitled.txt”). Poring over a fake mess such as this drives home a point: how do you organize your own personal stuff? If someone, such as a loved one, had to go through your digital files, how easy or difficult would it be for them to find specific files and make sense of it all? Are you leaving a mess for someone else to trudge through?

Wendy Hagenmaier, the outreach manager for the Society of Georgia Archivists, is one of the workshop producers. Hagenmaier wanted to reach beyond her community to demystify digital archives stewardship and explain to the general public why digital preservation matters and how they can preserve their own stuff. She researched other like-minded organizations in Georgia to find interested parties for the workshop. “This topic really seems to be taking off in public libraries,” said Hagenmaier,”and genealogists are very much interested in personal digital archiving, though I don’t know if the topic comes up in their circles on its own.”

Woman giving a slide presentation.
Michelle Kirk, president of the Atlanta Chapter of ARMA, gives a presentation. Photo courtesy of the Society of Georgia Archivists.

Hagenmaier — and her colleagues Michelle Kirk, Cathy Miller and Oscar Gittemeier — geared the workshop toward information professionals and encouraged the workshop attendees to go out and teach the workshop to others so that the message will reach the general public in a sort of trickle-down effect. So far she has presented the curriculum at a “train the trainer” webinar, a workshop and at a Georgia State Archives genealogy event.

The Society of Georgia Archivists also offer a Personal Digital Archiving Workshop Outreach Grant to help information professionals in Georgia promote the idea that librarians, archivists and records managers are a source of expertise for assisting individuals (the public, family members, students, corporate employees, etc.) with their personal digital archiving needs. The grant will be given to individuals who apply for the grant after hosting and teaching a workshop at their institutions or in their communities, using the curriculum materials designed by SGA, GLA and Atlanta ARMA.

Hagenmaier is fervent about getting the word out to people, making them aware that they casually create and use digital stuff in their everyday lives, so digital stewardship could and should be just as casual and effortless. She feels that knowledge of digital stewardship will empower people and assure them that their digital files can be safe if they keep them safe. She said that in the course of her work she sees in people a fear of the unknown, a huge anxiety about the fate of digital files. To illustrate her point she cites a moment during her genealogy conference presentation when she asked a group of genealogists, “How many of you think you will be able to access your digital files in ten years?” No one raised a hand.

“They are hopeful but not confident,” said Hagenmaier. “Personal digital archiving is still foreign to people. It is important for us to just get the word out that they can preserve their own stuff.”

Comments (4)

  1. This a super-groovy set of ideas and exercises! I try my best to label digital files accurately, but it’s a messy situation! I have been experimenting with different styles of storing and indexing my files in the so-called “cloud” and it has been a learning experience. Thanks for sharing this — and I’m looking forward to the conference in April.

  2. Hello,

    I am trying to access the “Find the Person in the Personal Digital Archive” (the activity data set and all the workshop materials are free and available for download, reuse and remixing). The link does not load. By chance do you have a link?

    • Hello, and thanks for your interest in the Personal Digital Archiving resources! The links to the sites should still work, but unfortunately we do not have any control over links to other external resources that are not on Library of Congress websites. We have, though, noted that the Society of Georgia archivists has a new web address, and that site contains a link to resources for the Personal Digital Archiving workshop, including the “Find the Person in the Digital Archive” activity. That material is available at

  3. Hello,

    I am trying to access the files so I could replicate this activity for a class. DO you know where I can view the materials?

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