Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reading Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, edited by Donald T. Hawkins, Information Today,

Personal digital archiving seems to be an increasingly popular topic. The annual conference of the same of the same is going into its 5th year with a meeting in April in Indianapolis. (I hope to attend.) The Library of Congress’ very active digital preservation division has developed many resources geared to the same topic.

And so it is not surprising that books like Personal Archiving should begin appearing. Before even getting into the both, though, I think it is worthwhile to spend a bit of time trying to understand the audience(s) that engage with this information and for whom this information – and this book – is for. It seems to me there are three audiences involved: the persons whose digital material could/should be preserved; those who want to provide those persons with the awareness and information they need to preserve their information; and those who are interested in the preserved digital material of persons. All three audiences are addressed in this book, although the latter two get most of the attention – which seems appropriate as it is the latter two groups who will most likely be this book’s predominant readers. Danielle Conklin’s chapter “Personal Archiving for Individuals and Families” is the only chapter that feels like it specifically addresses the basic questions and needs of an individual wanting to preserve their digital material. This is not a negative criticism of the book

Mike Ashenfelder of the Library of Congress has a good chapter on the Library of Congress’ efforts at providing public information. The campaign that is needed, and which they are trying to achieve is to create awareness, and once awareness is generated, to share useful information readily understandable and useful forms. It was interesting to note at the end of the chapter that they are rethinking how they do this with a desire to reach larger audiences. I would have appreciated more chapters about institutions’ efforts to engage and inform the public. Ellysa Stern Cahoy’s chapter “Faculty Members as Archivists” discussed Pennsylvania State University Libraries’ efforts at this with one segment of their community.

Sarah Kim’s chapter “Landscape of Personal Digital Archiving Activities and Research” was a particularly strong and engaging read. She outlines five kinds of values people place on documents. “These five types of values from the concept of self-reflective value, which is the significance or usefulness of documents in constructing self.” (p. 157) She also provides what at least are for me intriguing insights into the evolving place of personal archives in a social and institutional context and ideas of postcustodialism and “distributed custody context”.

I will admit to being a bit miffed, or at least feeling a bit let down by Aaron Ximm’s chapter “Active Personal Archiving and the Internet Archive.” I will acknowledge that I had some personal hopes going into this chapter. I had recently been pondering the idea of doing some personal web archiving. Essentially I was wondering if there was a service kinda like Internet Archive’s Archive-It tool, but geared for the individual. Some place where I could “curate” an archive of websites I was personally interested in. And so, going into this chapter I with this title I had some hopes that I would get the answer to my little quest. The chapter describes the work of actively archiving the internet and the successful work of the Internet Archive. Ximm then goes on to define “active personal archiving” as “the automated collection by an archive of its own contents on behalf of a specific human individual or institution by simple software agents.” (p. 206).

So he’s told us how great the Internet Archive is – and I have no argument with that – and how important “active personal archiving” is and then concludes the chapter with saying that the Internet Archive doesn't provide this service, but has the capacity to, and whoever does provide this service, should be operate out of the same noble goals as the Internet Archive. Now, I have no reason to begrudge the Internet Archive anything, but between my personal interest in such a service, and their acknowledging the importance of such a service, and their capacity to provide such a service, such a wishy washy, noncommittal ending to the chapter left me a little frustrated. (The fact that I may have been anticipating that somewhere in this chapter they were going to reveal some hidden personal archiving service that I didn’t know about says much more about my own delusions than anything else.)

I found Richard Bank’s chapter “Our Technology Heritage” to be an interesting discussion of efforts to design physical objects which operate as homes for our digital legacy. These objects were “designed with home in mind as objects that might bridge personal and digital spaces. Our hope is in designing them is that people will put them on display and that value would be seen in both their physical form and digital content.” (p. 225) Essentially their goal was to create objects which could present digital information – most often photos – but in a physical object that would feel like the kind of object you would want to keep and hand down the generations. Something to mimic a box of old photos. They came up with some interesting design ideas, but the ultimate challenge was that the digital components to these objects only have an anticipated life of less than 10 years.  But it was still an interesting experiment in using some of the emotional strengths of physical objects to facilitate preserving and preserving digital objects.

My final critique of this volume is the couple chapters devoted to “current” software and services devoted to assisting with personal digital archiving. To try to capture such a rapidly moving world in something so “slow” as a published, paper book seems to invite problems like the fact that the first service listed for assisting in archiving photos, 1000memories, had been purchased and taken out of existence by the time book went to press.

The diversity of Personal Archiving’s chapters initially felt to me like it was a bit too broad – I really was not looking to learn about mining for narrative elements in vast email collections – but I’m okay with it now. I am now more aware, and informed, of the vast context of personal digital archive related activity.

The two areas that I hope to see/read/hear more about in the future are stories of successful public awareness and information campaigns geared toward the general public, and more ideas on rethinking institutions and individuals roles and relationships to personal digital (and non-digital) archives. How can we facilitate good personal digital archiving and preservation, and possibly access, practices without necessarily owning or possessing that material.

(True confessions – my own personal digital files are still a mostly neglected mess. Benign neglect, don’t fail me now.)

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