Conference Buzz: Personal Digital Archiving

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

I used to think that personal digital archiving meant scanning and storing family documents and photos. The Personal Digital Archiving conference in San Francisco on February 24-25 proved that although that is certainly included, the concept extends into many other areas as well. The conference venue was the fascinating headquarters of the Internet Archive (the building was once a church and has many interesting architectural features), and one would be hard put to suggest a more suitable organization to host it. The conference was very successful, and one measure of that is that there were 150 attendees—twice as many as last year.

Cathy Marshall of Microsoft Research opened the conference with a brief history and said that we are now in the third era of personal archiving. The first era, 2005-7, was a time of benign neglect, when many people were ambivalent about the value of their data. The next era began in 2007, when personal data achieved a life of its own. The present era began in 2009, when social media raised many other issues. Marshall’s main points were:

  • Someone else should be doing the archiving.
  • We won’t know why we have saved all those pictures after a couple of decades have passed.
  • Benign neglect becomes online neglect.
  • Digital information will survive only as long as someone takes care of it.

What is everyone doing with all those cheap digital cameras? The photos they take will become the digital archives of our times. And what about home movies? They have largely been supplanted by videos, but there are lots of them still in consumers’ hands. The Center for Home Movies was established to “collect, preserve, provide access to, and promote understanding of home movies and amateur motion pictures.” It even organized a Home Movie Digitization and Access Summit that drew 46 attendees: film makers, film transfer companies, and stock footage vendors.

Clifford Lynch, Director of the Coalition for Networked Information keynoted the second day of the conference. He said that we are moving into a second generation of understanding personal digital archives, where the complex of ownership and control is not clearly understood. We do not understand shared spaces for personal archiving very well, and we need “Archive Me” buttons on many more Web sites. Although we have built up many systems to record our “public lives” (notable dates, public offices held, residences, etc.), we need to think about how these spaces interconnect to the general infrastructure of society.

Three interesting projects were described in a “fast talks” session:

  • AboutOne, a subscription service, was developed to help busy people control all aspects of their records. Cloud computing and business software allows businesses to eliminate mundane tasks and gain new levels of efficiency; AboutOne brings these benefits to families.
  • Personal Archiving Day, an open house for the public on saving digital information and sponsored by the Library of Congress, will be held on April 22.
  • The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages.

Personal health information has many unique issues, especially involving privacy. MedHelp, an online health community with 12 million unique visits per month, has found that providing tools for users to track and share their health data has become a successful business. Privacy was seen as an option, not a restriction. Some healthcare providers are even using the data generated by trackers to help them in caring for their patients.

Finally, the personal data of many scientists and researchers may have historical value. Computer industry pioneers shared their thoughts about digitizing their archives. Edward Feigenbaum, often called the “father of expert systems” has an archive of 15,000 documents which has been digitized using the Self-Archiving Legacy Toolkit (SALT) system that he has developed in conjunction with the Stanford University library. Christina Engelbart spoke on behalf of her father Douglas Engelbart, who invented the mouse and made one of the first transmissions over the Internet. The Stanford Mouse Site tells the history of his invention of the mouse and contains many of his original materials.

In developing a scholar’s archive, context is everything. What is their story, and what were they thinking? A major lesson for archivists is to work with scholars throughout their career so that content, metadata, and extra materials can be archived along the way. It is much harder to compile robust archives when the creator of the original content is retired or deceased; and the archives will not be as rewarding for the scholars and students of the future.

The PDA conference was fascinating and revealed that personal archiving has many implications and applications. Personal archives are relevant to information professionals and are an entirely new genre with its own characteristics. They raise issues of ownership, copyright, preservation, privacy, and historical interest.

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