Apr 202014
 

I just finished D.T. Max’s fine new book, Every Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The book is elegantly written and does a wonderful job in portraying Wallace, who was a polymath genius, stunning literary talent and deeply sincere humanist .

51MbRwLrSoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_While I enjoyed learning more about all aspects of the man, I was especially interested in what Max had to say about Wallace’s use of computers. Which is to say: not much. I was a bit disappointed in this because, later in his career, Wallace did use a computer to draft his work and went on to use email for correspondence.

Wallace left a hybrid collection, the vast majority of which seems to have been on paper. He came of age during the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the widespread adoption of personal computers, and began his literary career using the traditional tools of handwritten and typescript drafts. Wallace also used paper correspondence with friends, editors and a variety of literary figures, including Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Thankfully, a good deal of this material survives in the David Foster Wallace Papers in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet, according to Max, Wallace did come use a computer around his mid 20s. It seems he began drafting by hand and then transcribed the work into electronic form, maybe in way similar to how he used a typewriter beforehand. What I found striking is there is so little discussion of how Wallace actually used the machine and what insights might be offered from his digital files. How extensively did he rework drafts on the screen, for example? What is revealed through a forensic analysis of the files and their media? How did the machine influence his work?

Part of the issue is that Wallace was no computer nerd. “Thank God,” Max quotes him as saying in reaction to a new piece of computer equipment “I wasn’t raised in this era.” Another issue is just what kind of born digital material exists for Wallace.

At the least there are files relating to his posthumous novel, The Pale King. Wallace’s editor at Little Brown turned a “tower of a manuscript and the handwritten journals and notebooks… and stacks of computer disks whose labels indicated the evolution of the novel’s title” into the finished work. The Ransom Center states that this material is slated to be placed with the rest of his archive. It will be interesting to see what kind of use the disks–along with whatever other born digital materials that might survive–are put to.

 

Mar 242014
 

Are you looking forward to The Emails of Thomas Pynchon? Or maybe Jonathan Franzen: Tweets and Chats?

Sorry, but the future holds something different for the literary remains of famous authors.

By Frank Boyd, on Flickr

By Frank Boyd, on Flickr

Email and other forms of digital technology represent a sea change for writers. Works are drafted and rewritten on the screen. Authors have a vastly expanded capability to create and to correspond with editors, friends and others, all of whom may be just a few keystrokes away.

But the degree to which any one writer’s digital trail survives is very much an open question. In 2005, for example, Zadie Smith speculated that her email would “will go the way of everything else I write on the computer–oblivion.”

Famous writers have long bequeathed their correspondence, drafts and unpublished works to libraries and archives. It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone: the institution build prestige; the researcher get revealing material; the public learns about the literary back story; and the writer (or her estate) gets money. Yet the whole system as we know it is built on paper: letters, journals and hand-annotated drafts.

Personal digital content threatens everything. The biggest problem is the “personal” part: authors, like the rest of us, can be poor stewards of their own digital legacy. They don’t back up their hard drives. Their files are a disorganized mess. Their content is scattered among multiple devices and online platforms. And while writers may know that some of this digital material has enduring value, there is as yet no easy way to even think about preserving it. All of us are still working though what digital means in our lives.

People have a natural emotional connection to works on paper–it’s easy to see, to handle and to store. It’s durable and even resists apparent efforts to destroy it. Even though Samuel Clements could, for example, write a letter declaring “shove this in the stove… I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted,” the words live on because they were on paper.

Clemens changed his mind regarding his letters, choosing to “leave it behind and utter it from the grave.” He has plenty of company.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow all left paper literary remains. Over the last century, libraries and archives have developed great expertise in acquiring and preserving this material.

But we are at an unusual point in documenting literary lives and works. Authors have had word processing and other forms of personal digital technology available to them for 30 years. Some writers have stubbornly refused to use it, but many have, and are contemplating their own “absurd literary remains.” What actually remains is big open question. Are there emails with editors or notable authors? Drafts with track changes? Ribald direct messages?

At this point, there are only a few institutions with literary personal digital materials. The Norman Mailer Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, include “359 computer disks, 47 electronic files, 40 CDs, 6 mini data cartridges, 3 laptop computers [documenting] correspondence and literary drafts.” The Salman Rushdie Papers at the Emory University Library have “one Macintosh Performa 5400/180, one Macintosh PowerBook 5300c, two Macintosh PowerBook G3 models, and one SmartDisk FWFL60 FireLite 60GB 2.5′ FireWire Portable Hard Drive.” The Susan Sontag Papers at the Charles E. Young Library, University of California Los Angeles, contain “seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails.” All these are hybrid collections, which is to say that most of the material is on paper.

How much born digital content is still out there, living wild under the good/bad/indifferent care of writers who find themselves to be their own unintended digital archivists? How ever much there is, I suspect that the proportion of paper to digital is rapidly declining.

What to do about it? Raise awareness about the value of personal digital archives across the board, pure and simple. Everyone has a story to tell and a digital legacy to pass on. The apparent value of email and other content will, I am sure, become more obvious over time.

This is already happening for writers. In 2005, Rick Moody told the New York Times that, when he was considering the sale of his papers, the dealer wanted to know about email. “This sort of brought to mind that there was a policy [for saving it], though it was a very unmethodical policy,” he said. Paying money for email is certainly one way to draw attention to its value. And once writers, agents, publishers, libraries and archives, and all the rest of us understand that personal digital collections warrant careful management from the moment of creation, we will see betters tools and methods for personal digital archiving.

In the meantime, we can only speculate how much and what kinds of digital literary remains will find their way into research collections. Or, to paraphrase Sontag, our libraries await the digital archives of longing.

 

Mar 142014
 

All digital storage media–hard drives, flash disks, CD-ROMs, and the like–have a short life.  This is why digital preservation requires active management, including regular migration of content from older storage devices to newer devices.

Do you have a back-up plan?

Do you have a back-up plan? by Images by John ‘K’, on Flickr

Individuals face an especially serious challenge.  Unlike many organizations, people at home typically do not have special services to guard their digital data from loss or corruption.

Another way to put it is that everyone is now their own digital archivist.  If you don’t attend to preserving your own digital photographs, videos, email, social media and so on, there is an excellent chance they will be lost.

And, unlike what some vendors imply, relying solely on the cloud is not foolproof. A commercial service can choose to pull the plug–literally–on a cloud service at any time.  If you want to keep it, you need to take responsibility for it.

Individual users need to know that the life of storage media are cut short by at least three factors:

  1. Media durability.
  2. Media usage, storage and handling.
  3. Media obsolescence.

Media Durability

Computer storage media devices vary in how long they last. The quality and construction of individual media items differ widely. The following estimates for media life are approximate; a specific item can easily last longer–or fail much sooner.

  • Floppy disk: 3-5 years.  Though no longer made, many still exist; examples include 8”, 5.25” and 3.5” disks, along with items such as Zip and Jaz disks.
  • Flash media: 1-10 years.  This category includes USB flash drives (also known as jump drives or thumb drives), SD/SDHC cards and solid-state drives; all generally are less reliable than traditional spinning-disk hard drives.
  • Hard drive: 2-8 years.  The health of a spinning disk hard drive often depends on the environment; excessive heat, for example, can lead to quick failure.
  • CD/DVD/Blu-ray optical disk: 2-10 years.  There is large variation in the quality of optical media; note that “burnable” discs typically have a shorter life than “factory pressed” discs).
  • Magnetic tape: 10-30 years.  Tape is a more expensive storage option for most users–it depends on specialty equipment–but it is the most reliable media available.

Media use handling and storage

People have a direct impact on the lives of storage media:

  • The more often media are handled and used, the greater the chance they will fail; careful handling can extend media life, rough handling has the opposite effect.
  • Stable and moderate temperature and humidity, along with protection from harmful elements (such as sun and salt) helps keep media alive.
  • Good-quality readers and other hardware media connections are beneficial; poor connections can kill media quickly.
  • Media that are not labeled or safely stored can be lost or accidentally thrown away.
  • Fires, floods and other disasters are very bad for media!

Media obsolescence

Computer technology changes very quickly.  Commonly used storage media can become obsolete within a few years.  Current and future computers may not:

  • Have drives that can read older media.
  • Have hardware connections that can attach to older media (or media drives).
  • Have device drivers that can recognize older media hardware.
  • Have software that can read older files on media.

What you need to do

Actively manage your important digital content!  Steps to consider:

  • Have at least two separate copies of your content on separate media—more copies are better.
  • Use different kinds of media (DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives or internet cloud storage);  use reputable vendors and products.
  • Store media copies in different locations that are as physically far apart as practical.
  • Label media properly and keep in secure locations (such as with important papers).
  • Create new archival media copies at least every five years to avoid data loss.

For more information

  1. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs —A Guide for Librarians and Archivists
  2. Digital Media Life Expectancy and Care
  3. Do Burned CDs Have a Short Life Span?
  4. Mag Tape Life Expectancy 10-30 years
  5. Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories (Library of Congress)
  6. Retro Media: Memory (and Memories) Lost; Which of these media will be readable in 10 years?  50 years?  150 years?
  7. Care, Handling and Storage of Removable media (UK National Archives)
  8. Do You Have a Back-up Plan?
  9. Selecting and managing storage media for digital 

    public records guideline (Queensland State Archives)


Note: This is adopted from information developed for digitalpreservation.gov at the Library of Congress; post updated: originally published in Jan. 2011

Mar 112014
 

In an era when millions of people have personal digital archives, and where communities of all kinds are archiving content of all kinds, what is the role for archivists? This may sound like a trick question but it is surprisingly complicated.

Sébastien Magro, on Flickr

Sébastien Magro, on Flickr

Part of the problem is that “archive” and “archiving” have acquired chic currency. The terms are used ever more fluidly to describe collecting, keeping and accessing information, most particularly that in digital form. Some of us who identify with the archival profession do weigh in from time to time in an a variety of interesting, if  inconclusive, discussions about our individual concepts (see here, for example).

It’s time to accept that archive/archives/archived/archiving, et al., have fled whatever restricted semantic corral that used to exist.There are declared archivists for shoessex and furries. The archive has gone wild into the vernacular.

Many professional archivists are, of course, employed by institutions to care for and serve recorded information. The type of information varies among institutions; no one place dares to put a claim on everything (with one possible exception). Institutional archives explicitly care for only a fraction of the most important material. The U.S. National Archives has long claimed, for example, to preserve only 1-3 percent of all federal records. This selectivity is justified on practical grounds (there is too much material to store and manage) as well as on projections of future value (people will only care about a tiny portion of the whole). The limited subset of preserved material is a precious distillate upon which professional archivists devote the vast bulk of their time and attention. Notions of evidence, authenticity and trustworthiness for these rare bits are paramount, and are used as justification for spending lots of money to build complex information technology systems to preserve digital archives.

One could say this traditional focus is out of step with the times. Perhaps this is one reason that archivists have lost the semantic battle over their own name. If, as Tim O’Reilly said in 2011, “Digital preservation won’t be just the concern of specialists, it will be the concern of everyone,” how do professional archivists justify what can seem like a monkish fixation on a tiny arcane fraction of the digital whole? I don’t think earnest explanation about reference models or trustworthy systems will cut it with the average person.

Now, there is a real baby in all this bathwater, and she needs careful attention.

I see some interesting possibilities in Terry Cook’s 2013 article, Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms (behind a pay wall). He presents a well-articulated view of how archival practice (or “myth-making”) has evolved over the last 150 years, from “guarding the judicial legacy” to “the historian-archivist selects the archive” to “the mediator-archivist shapes the societal archive” and finally to “the activist-archivist mentors collaborative evidence- and memory-making.” Cook sets the context for this fourth framework in familiar language. “With the Internet, every person can become his own publisher, author… and archivist,” he writes. “Each is building an online archive…. And they are creating records to bind their communities together, foster their group identities, and carry out their business.” The excitement comes when he imagines how professional archivists can interact with this new reality.

Archives as a concept, as practices, as institution, and as profession may be transformed to flourish in our digital era, especially one where citizens have a new agency and a new voice, and where they leave through digital social media all kinds of new and potentially exciting, and potentially archival, traces of human life, of what it means to be human.

But to fully embrace this new possibility, archivists have to reimagine their role.

Professional archivists need to transform themselves from elite experts behind institutional walls to becoming mentors, facilitators, coaches, who work in the community to encourage archiving as a participatory process shared with many in society, rather than necessarily acquiring all the archival products in our established archives. We archivists need to listen as well as speak, becoming ourselves apprentices to learn new ways (and, sometimes, very old ways) that communities have for dealing with creating and authenticating evidence, storytelling memory-making, documenting relationships that are often very different from our own.

The ultimate aspiration here, according to Cook, is “a virtual, inclusive, ‘total’ archive for a country, province or state, or similar jurisdiction, one held by many archives and libraries, including community archives, but unified in conception and comprehensiveness.” He goes on to describe efforts in Canada to make this concept an operational reality.

To my mind, this is exactly right. It jibes with other stimulating ideas, such as that of Mike Featherstone, who asked “rather than see the archive as a specific place in which we deposit records, documents, photographs, Ž film, video and all the minutiae on which culture is inscribed, should we not seek to extend the walls of the archive to place it around the everyday, the world?” But, even more to the point, it seems to me that the movement toward a more democratic, personalized view of “archives” is already well underway, and that those of us who consider ourselves to be professional preservers of the cultural record must accept and embrace this fact. We need to do so even if it means relaxing certain orthodoxies that we have long gestured toward in an effort to establish a special role (myth-making!) for ourselves. Given the enormous opportunity to help people and communities nurture their memories, this seems only sensible.

Cook does remind us, however, that we have choice. Professional archivists can defend their “bastions of identity” or they can feel liberated by new social and technological forces. Put more dramatically, archivists can “float in stagnant backwaters of irrelevancy” or they can be “transformed to be relevant actors out in our society’s communities…. listening more to citizens than the state.”

Mar 042014
 

Brace yourself: you probably already have it. I know I’ve had it for years, but lately it seems that everyone I meet is coming down with personal archive fever. The symptoms include bouts of anxiety, obsessive behavior, vivid memory flashbacks and shifts in mood from an urge to protect to a compulsion to forget, perhaps even to destroy.

But let us not begin at the beginning, nor even with the fever brought on by personal archiving. But rather with the personal acts of creating and caring.

Millions of people now generate digital photographs, posts on Twitter or Facebook and other trails of digital content that extend into the past. Most people begin innocent of any desire to “archive.” Technology instead lures us into recording more and more about our lives until, suddenly, we have a collection that documents a period of history in our lives. We have a personal digital archive. And we have surprising and strong emotional connections with and reactions to this odd extension of ourselves.

That we consider such digital collections to be archival is a clue to why they cause fervid reactions. Traditionally, archive is a term associated with important government records that must be kept forever; more broadly, the word is associated with values such as knowledge, memory, nourishment and power. An official archive (or archives) is a cloistered place that most people knew little about, apart from the fact that it is a place responsible for a dauntingly huge amount of  important information about the past. What’s changed is that average people are now themselves responsible for a dauntingly huge amount of  important information about their own past.

Until recently, people had mementos, photo albums, home movies and paper files, but it was rare for any of this material to be considered  “a personal archive.” This began changing as the ability to generate large volumes of documentation grew progressively easier, and the trend really took off after the advent of personal computing, as the graph below from Google Ngram illustrates. At this point personal archives are commonplace, from celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and Beyoncé, to average people. Google “I have a personal archive” and you will get over 56,000 hits.

From Google Ngram

From Google Ngram

This is a fascinating trend that has all kinds of rich implications, from challenging the hegemony of the historical imagination, to making us stupid. But let me get back to the fever–the physical and psychological impacts–of personal digital archives. One affliction is, ironically, an effect that flows from the positive association with our archives. Many of us have a clear awareness about the value of our collection for documenting important life events, most especially those to do with raising children and other family events. The collection is seen as very important–but it is also unseen in a machine, often disorganized and scattered, hard to access and, perhaps worst of all, terribly temporary-seeming. Everyone has some experience with digital loss, and the vulnerability of data to human and machine error is a well-known fact. But for most people, addressing this problem is maddeningly difficult. There are too many files–with more added all the time–in too many places to keep easy track of them. Making copies is a good idea, but one estimate says 81 percent of people don’t have any current personal data backup. The result? The more you care about your digital archive, the more anxious you likely are.

Another malady flowing from personal archives is the opposite of the first: the archive brings back uncomfortable or unwelcome memories. Part of this is the lesson that parents try to drum into teenagers: don’t put anything too personal or too embarrassing out into the digital universe, because it can come back to haunt you. In a larger sense, the problem is the inability to forget: for all their fallibility, computer networks also have the seemingly perverse capability to preserve details that people don’t want kept. This includes personal data that companies (and the government) collect, but it extends to our own personal collections. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital AgeViktor Mayer-Schönberger tells a sad story of two long-separated friends who agree to meet at an old cafe haunt to catch up on things. “But Jane can’t quite remember the name of the cafe. So she has a brainwave – she’ll check through her old emails to John. As she looks for the cafe address, she stumbles across an exchange with him that poisons her attitude to him. Instead of forgiving and forgetting, she is overwhelmed with old resentment and, quite possibly, won’t turn up for that coffee.” If we can’t forget, we can’t forgive or change for the better.

Sometimes a personal archive provokes a mild delirium where people are compelled to confess embarrassment about the past, conscious or not of the oddly self-referential element it adds to the collection. There is plenty of this evident on Twitter, as these recent search results below reveal.

Twitter search results

Twitter search results

I’d really like to see tweets that reveal in the present moment and say words to the effect of “hey future me–screw you and your judgments,” but I guess awareness of the archive only goes so far.

Fever can, of course, refer to “a state of heightened or intense emotion or activity,” and in this regard personal digital archives are certainly capable of helping people feel strong positive emotion, strengthen family ties, reduce alienation and experience a comforting sense of continuity with with past. This is chiefly how I would characterize my own case of personal digital archive fever (although I do wish I had more fevered energy to work with my files). But I also cycle through the less pleasant symptoms noted above. What I hope for is a way to transform fever to fitness: I want more of the affirming enthusiasm with less of  the anxiety and bad energy.

While I don’t know if this desire will be fulfilled, things are bound to change. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the history of technology is a continuous pattern of  humanity first inventing a tool and then having the tool change humanity. Right now we’re at the “and then” stage.

Oct 022012
 

This post is based on remarks I presented during a Digital Dialog at the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, on 9/25/2012.

Personal Digital Archiving Outreach, by Wlef70, on Flickr

Personal Digital Archiving Outreach, by Wlef70, on Flickr

I believe that libraries, archives and museums share a common need to aggressively promote their social mission. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, including a demand to justify relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.

Libraries, archives and museums also have a pressing imperative to deal with digital content. Each manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping it accessible over time.  All institutions face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of digital loss is growing along with the volume of digital information, and there much work to do in educating people about that risk.

Cultural heritage organizations have a great opportunity to fulfill their mission through what I loosely refer to as personal digital archiving. The heart of the matter is that individuals and families are building large collections of personal digital content, and they need advice and help to keep this content accessible into the future.  Cultural heritage institutions, as preserving entities with a public service orientation, are well-positioned to help people deal with their growing–and fragile–personal digital archives.  This is a way for institutions to connect with their communities in a new way, and to thrive.

I’m going to focus on public libraries, both because I think they are at the greatest risk and also because they also have the greatest opportunity to benefit from a focus on news kinds of services.

Libraries are obviously facing tough times. The Huffington Post recently ran a series called Libraries in Crisis. The lead article is headlined Can the American Library Survive? and features a litany of sad stories from communities across the country. There are two clear-cut issues at work here. First, the state and local governments that fund public libraries are under dire financial pressure. Second, there is a case to be made that at least some of the traditional functions of libraries have been supplanted by information technology. The result is budget cuts and reduced services for libraries nearly everywhere.

Map of US showing where libraries are being cut

To be sure, public libraries still enjoy a great deal of support. The HuffPo articles are replete with fierce testimonials in support of libraries as historic community resources and as essential public goods. Those of us of a certain age have warm memories about libraries as places where we discovered the joy of reading and discovering new knowledge. Experiences like this are deeply entwined in our values and lead to a reflexive ongoing support for the idea of public libraries.

As well, there is a wonderful egalitarian ideal involved. The Daily Kos blog, for example, recently wrote: “The library offers equal access to all. It is a truly public, truly socialized good. It doesn’t matter if you’re a homeless person or the mayor, when you walk-in to the library and present your library card, you have access to all of the same services.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators devotes a section to public libraries and declares that they are “the primary point of contact with the humanities” for many Americans.  David Carr, in The Promise of Cultural Institutions, writes lyrically about the importance of libraries. He declares that they “are among the most purposeful and intentional of institutions. … Holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”

Sentiments such as these have helped public libraries survive to this point. But no one can count on this emotional response to last. Budgetary pressures will continue, and many communities already are facing gut-wrenching choices about cutting other priority services. The English writer Will Self also claims that a good deal of the visceral support for public libraries is based on nostalgic memories rather than the value of current services. A clear-eyed view, according to him, would reveal that many libraries—in the UK, anyway—offer less than the resources they are given. Regardless of how right or wrong Self is, a new generation is rising with their own impression of the utility of the library, and they will eventually be making the decisions.

It’s clear that many in the library community understand that a new direction is essential. Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute for Museums and Library Services, said recently that “There is no doubt that the future success of libraries depends on their ability to change and evolve to meet the changing ways that people access and use information.”

This is the right idea, but I do quibble with the use of “evolve,” which implies gradual development. Given the profound change libraries face, “rapidly transform” is more appropriate. Libraries 2020, Imagining the Library of the not too distant future, a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, points to how information itself has morphed in ways that were impossible to imagine just a few decades ago.

Pew Internet and American Life Project, Libraries 2020, Imagining the Library of the not too distant future

Information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to cost a lot, now it’s for the most part free. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it’s in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback. Pew also suggests that we now expect ready access to all kinds of information, including “location sensitive” details and data that provide immersive meaning in the context of our personal lives.

For libraries, these changes are amplified even more by new ideas about how people acquire knowledge. Lee Rainie from Pew spoke recently about the need for libraries to become an anchor for what he calls “learning communities.”

Institute for Museums and Library Services, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills

Institute for Museums and Library Services, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills

IMLS explores this situation further in Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills, which outlines the changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers on interactions with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as unquestioned centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect more of a partnership. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But user communities also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between staff and users with “a focus on audience engagement and experiences.”

Graphic from: Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library

The American Library Association recently issued Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library (PDF)which outlines the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities. The key message is institutions must shift along several dimensions of their operations. ALA presents a model to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.

As I interpret this model, the left dimension represents the way public libraries have traditionally functioned: as physical places dealing with physical objects, focusing on providing access to a common set of authoritative resources. The right dimension is often seen as “the library of the future” with features such as virtual services, broad-based community interaction, and the availability of specialized resources and equipment, such as fab labs and 3D printers. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a choice between the library as a place where you can get standard published information and as a place where you find information that is unique to a particular community. At the far right along this dimension, the library actually is more like an archive—which is exactly the term the report uses. To fill this role, libraries will collect and preserve unique local materials, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia resources.

It’s possible to image a library positioning itself at various points along each line, but it seems to me that moving one way on one dimension has the effect of pulling the other dimensions in the same direction. It also seems to me that enhanced community engagement, a focus on new media and facilitating locally-based collections is a great way for libraries to build public support and demonstrate value.

Economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition,” which can be defined as a promise to the consumer that they will get a worthwhile experience in exchange for what it costs.

In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Do institutions offer what the public wants? What makes institutional products, services, or messages valuable? Why should people, for example, care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding attention. Capturing even fleeting awareness is a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Ultimately a public institution must aim to form an emotional bond with its community, and this requires connecting with people in a way that matters to them personally. MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson talks about “social commerce for the cultural sector,” by which he means having institutions understand what their communities want and then using outreach to “sell” their services.

Perhaps the most important consideration for public libraries is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. To quote David Carr, “the incendiary institution… must understand its own energy and how that energy attracts and engages its users: How does it lead people in? . …Users will increase in number when the institution addresses them and the problems that learning presents to contemporary life.” Institutions should know that people—particularly younger people—need a different approach to lead people in. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says in his talk Powering the Museum of Tomorrow, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” Poole notes that today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.

Right now there is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Anyone can set up a social media account and declare themselves a curator of an archive of something or another. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also illustrates the competition for community attention that institutions face. Some cultural heritage organizations are quite aware of what they are up against. A “voter sentiment” report for the public library in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”

I would argue that personal digital archiving is a key marketing advantage for public libraries. People are amassing large bodies of digital content such as photographs, videos and social media streams, but they have little in the way of guidance for managing and preserving this content. The need for help in this area is rapidly growing, both because the content is expanding and because its value—sentimental and otherwise—is becoming more apparent. As noted earlier, libraries already enjoy a trusted community role. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their mission with the personal concerns of contemporary citizens. In this way, people can develop a more expansive basis for supporting the role of the library in their community.

Screen shot from Library of Congress website for personal digital archiving

Several libraries around the country are already doing personal digital archiving outreach. I trace the origin of these activities primarily to two initiatives. The first is the Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program website, digitalpreservation.gov. Full disclosure: I manage the site along with NDIIPP social media activities. And, at the risk of self-aggrandizement, let me say that the personal digital archiving section on the site is one of the best for members of the public who are seeking basic help. Included are a series of tips for dealing with different kinds of content, along with a dozen short videos focusing on topics such as preserving digital photographs and the cultural importance of digital preservation. A recently added feature is the Personal Digital Archiving Day Kit, which provides guidance and information resources to help institutions hold public outreach sessions.

NDIIPP also works to raise awareness about digital preservation through a Twitter stream, @ndiipp, and a blog, The Signal. We’ve made a concerted effort to reach a broad audience. The NDIIPP team found the most effective way to draw in readers were posts about personal digital archiving topics. After nearly a year and a half of blogging, nearly all of the most-read posts cover personal digital archiving topics. Our hope is that some readers will take steps to preserve their digital memories. The most motivated of these people could be activated to connect with a local institution to seek more advice. We hope as well that interest in personal digital archiving can be leveraged to raise public awareness about the overall value of preserving all forms of cultural heritage in digital form.

The second initiative that has draw attention to personal digital archiving is Preservation Week, which ALA initiated in 2010 to raise awareness about institutional collections. ALA declared that “Libraries and other institutions can use Preservation Week to connect our communities through events, activities and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections.” The organizational website includes a listing of events and a variety of preservation resources. The number of events has steadily grown, and in 2012 over 40 institutions in the U.S. and Canada held public outreach events, many of which included some discussion of personal digital archiving.

Buttons Promoting Digital Preservation, by Wlef70, on Flickr

Promotional buttons, by Wlef70, on Flickr

The public library impact on—and visibility from—digital archiving could be larger still in situations where libraries embrace the community archival function noted in the ALA report. A library could, for example, collect local government records, as well as historic community photographs, videos, blogs and oral histories. Librarians could work with citizens to build co-created community repositories to document local cultural heritage. Individuals could donate personal digital information to a repository, which has the dual benefit of expanding research material while also tightening the bond between the library and it’s community.

While this is a prospective vision for most public libraries, it can also be said—with apologies to William Gibson—that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. An exemplar is Digital Amherst, a project of the Jones Public Library of Amherst, Massachusetts. The web-based collection blends the library’s historical and literary resources with materials contributed by local residents. The Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Special Collections has a rich body of local content available online and solicits new material. The Fullerton, California, Public Library Local History Room has a repository with donations of materials by individuals as well as organizations. Digital Horizons, a consortium that includes the Fargo, ND, public library, solicits donations of digital photographs, videos and documents.

It is too soon to tell what the overall impact has been for personal digital archiving outreach and community repository development. My guess is that penetrating public attention will take some time. Personal collections need to keep expanding, and, sadly, a number need to be lost for the issue to resonate loudly enough to break through the torrent of other messages that people are exposed to every day. But I feel that public libraries have a great opportunity to capitalize on a growing need. And, given the rich set of personal digital archiving resources from the Library of Congress and others, launching a personal digital archiving outreach program is within the reach of nearly every public library.

The stakes are high. It could well be that personal digital archiving might turn out to be a test for how well libraries adapt to the changing needs of users. I don’t mean to say that other activities are less important, but libraries are in the business of managing information—and what people need is help managing their digital information. The other consideration is the extent to which libraries can continue to serve the role that Carr describes as “holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”

The memory of contemporary culture is now largely digital and huge parts of that memory are in the public’s hands. This is the reality that libraries face as they seek to thrive in the days ahead.

 

Sep 052012
 

This post consists of edited remarks I gave to the 17th Brazilian Conference of Archival Science/XVII Congresso Brasileiro de Arquivologia held in Rio de Janeiro in June of this year.  These remarks will be published in Portuguese as part of the conference proceedings.  My original presentation was given using a set of slides, a copy of which is available on Slideshare.

Libraries, archives and museums should take advantage of social media to promote their mission in general and digital preservation in particular. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, particularly with regard to how they manage digital content.

Each type of institution manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping that content accessible over time. They also face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of loss is growing along with the volume and complexity of digital information. There is still much work to do in making that risk clear to people. Most critically, all cultural heritage institutions must assert their relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.

I work at the U.S. Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation program. I manage our social media activities, and I think we do a fairly good job. We maintain an active Facebook page and have an extensive website, digitalpreservation.gov. For the last year, we have been blogging vigorously. I also have worked for a number of years at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where I helped to preserve electronic records. I am taking a perspective beyond any one institution, and am offering only my personal opinions in this paper.

Libraries, archives and museums are collectively concerned about the future, as the titles of recent professional publications indicate. Examples include The Future of Archives in a Digital AgeConfronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public LibraryThe museum of the future is…; and A National Archives of the Future. This concern is well placed: our world is in the midst of an information revolution that forces us to seriously rethink how cultural heritage institutions meet their missions. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this revolution is that it is evolving so fast that we face a future that surely will transform all aspects of our work. A big part of this is that information itself is changing. The Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it is in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback.

Another way in which information has changed is that it has moved from paper and other analog media to digital formats. This change has been sudden, dramatic and risky. Information on paper is stable and can last for a long time without extensive maintenance. We have centuries of experience working with paper, and we are good at keeping it in archives. Digital information is notoriously different. The technology is rapidly evolving. Some of us know what a 5.25” floppy disk is; we might even still own some. But there are already plenty of younger people who have no idea what a floppy disk is or that it has anything to do with computers. As time passes, most varieties of computer media—and the information they contain—will fade into oblivion.

Every cultural heritage institution must accept basic facts about digital content. First, most institutions will be responsible for managing lots of data. Second, there is no simple way to preserve that data over time. And third, the best way to move ahead is to seek and share information about digital preservation standards, policies and best practices. Partially in response to this, institutions will shift along several key dimensions of their operations. The American Library Association presents the model shown in Figure 1 as a way to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.

Figure 1

Figure 1

We can see some familiar issues here, such as a movement away from physical space to virtual experiences and shifting focus from working with individual users to working with many users as the same time. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a shift away from libraries as a portal to information to serving what is called an archival role. In other words, libraries will start collecting and preserving unique materials that are relevant to their area, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia sources. This is an excellent way for libraries to connect in a meaningful way with users, and all cultural heritage institutions should consider the same approach.

Figure 2 is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services report Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills and outlines the major changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers around how institutions work with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect less filtering of information. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But users also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between archival staff and users with a “focus on audience engagement, experiences.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

Archivists have traditionally spent much of their time working to make collections ready for research. They focus on arranging, describing and understanding provenance. In the traditional custodial model, users are expected to come through archivists to get to content. This is a model that has worked well for generations. But it is challenged by new forces. Consider the concept of “Web 2.0.” Wikipedia describes the term as “web-based services that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability and user-centered design.” “Archive 2.0” (or library 2.0 or museum 2.0) is shorthand for defining an approach that permits more direct access to collections and that regards users as equal partners in terms of determining the usefulness of those collections. This means that institutions have to be more transparent and collaborative about what they collect and how they make it available, especially when it comes to the digital content users seek.

Today many people—particularly those that have grown up immersed in digital technology—have firm expectations about the availability of information, and also firm expectations of freedom to use that information as they wish to learn something new. There are competing ideas about what cultural heritage institutions need to do to adapt to these expectations, but there are some common themes, including:

  • Institutions must work harder to understand the needs of their communities to build stronger relations and relationships.
  • Institutions should be less inward-looking and imagine their boundaries in more porous ways.
  • Staff need expertise to communicate directly with a broad spectrum of users and facilitate discussions focusing on topics the community cares about.
  • Organizations need to be flexible, responsive and agile in embracing new technologies and new ways of working.

Perhaps the most important theme relating to institutional change is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. A great deal of the pressure on institutions comes from the community they serve. In a wired world where a teenager with a smart phone has more information at their fingertips than a U.S. president did a few years, users have transformed from passive recipients to demanding consumers. This isn’t a new story—Time magazine declared “You” as the person of the year in 2007 because “You control the information age.” But there can be no doubt that people—particularly younger people—have different expectations about how to use information and how to value the institutions that provide information. This calls for discussing cultural heritage—and the work of cultural heritage organizations—in a way that fits into how people live their lives and that makes sense as part of their personal story. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” To paraphrase Poole, today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.

Mind the “be ignored” part. There is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Any person or group can set up a social media account and declare it to be “an archive” of something or another. And many people will consider this to be culture heritage information, even though no formally trained curator is involved. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also demonstrates the competition for community attention, participation and commitment that institutions face. The fact that this competition exists should come as no surprise to cultural heritage organizations. In 2002, a report based on a survey of registered voters in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”

Institutions of all types need to think about what the future holds in terms of expanded engagement with the community, particularly in connection with social media tools. The U.S. National Archives, for example, recently hosted a “Forum on Communications, Technology, and Government,” during which a panel explored “new opportunities and ideas for social media affecting the private, government, and public sectors and the average citizen.” The National Archives clearly sees its future as closely involved with social media. The agency made this point clearly with this suggested Facebook post: “For a change, the National Archives will focus on the future, not the past!” It is fascinating that the agency drew such as sharp contrast to its “focus on the past” by saying they have a “focus on the future” “for a change.” That’s a big message packed into a few words.

Thinking about the future is sensible. There’s just one thing—the future is here right now. There is precious little time to contemplate future audiences or think up future strategies. There are demands to undertake change now. The risk in waiting is that the larger culture will pass cultural heritage institutions by as a relic from a pre-wired world. Users expect relevant aspects of culture to come to them and to resonate with their needs. Now, many cultural heritage professionals are aware of the need to embrace technology and to engage with users in novel ways. There are some great efforts around the world to do just that, and some institutions are actively embracing the future with social media. William Gibson famously said “The future is already here–it’s just unevenly distributed.” These are still early days for libraries, archives and museums in using these tools, but the outlines of a strategy are emerging.

Social media is not, of course, an end to itself. It is a tool to help institutions interact with and build communities. Unless the tool is used correctly, it will accomplish little. If an institution is looking to social media to promote change some immediate questions arise. What should a strategy consider? Which specific tools can be used? What is the best way to measure the usefulness of those tools? A formal social media strategy is rare at this point for most institutions. An exception is the U.S. National Archives, which is explicit about its strategy and what it hopes to accomplish. “At the National Archives and Records Administration, social media tools have the potential to transform our agency and the way we serve our customers and American citizens,” states the agency website. “Social media tools will help us accomplish our mission as the nation’s record keeper to preserve government records and make them more accessible to you.”

In devising a social media strategy, it is useful to think of four basic goals (inform, engage, influence and activate) and four ways to measure success in meeting those goals (numbers, trends, mentions, shares). The goals focus on an institution connecting with its audience. At the most basic level, the intent is for people to know what your mission is and why it is important. Beyond that, the hope is to engage with people on topics in which they have a direct interest. engage means that people respond to what an institution communicates. The clearest indication of that are blog comments or other kinds of direct feedback. The influence and activate goals mean that what we do helps people learn and causes them to expand their awareness. In the case of digital preservation, this means helping people understand what is at stake in keeping digital information accessible. Measures are important to understand how effective the strategy is in terms of audience, reach and impact. There are different ways to think about measurements, and they include “hard” metrics, like numbers of viewers or followers, as well as “soft” indicators such as mentions by influential people.

Communication and engagement should be at heart of why preserving institutions use social media. Institutions have to propose ideas, accept feedback and facilitate an ongoing conversation among a diverse set of people with different priorities and perspectives. The ultimate goal is that the larger community supports the mission to preserve and make available digital content. One way to promote this is to share information about digital preservation standards and best practices. Many people apart from information professionals are interested in the “how to” aspect and are eager to learn about the skills, tools and infrastructures needed to bring digital content under stewardship. It is crucial to raise awareness among the general public about what is at stake for our collective digital heritage. The public has long valued the role of archives in keeping traditional materials, but the idea of preserving digital content is new. Very new, in fact.

Engaging with the public has a related purpose: many individuals and families are looking for advice for keeping their own growing collections of digital photographs and other personal materials. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their preservation mission with the personal concerns of citizens. The key to successful public engagement is effective social media content. Kate Brodock in Content Production and Your Communications Program sums up how to do this in two simple ways: 1) create content that people want to read and to share; and 2) create content that will work well after its shared. Content is defined in a broad sense—it includes blog posts, tweets and Facebook posts. It also includes all other information generated and distributed, including videos, podcasts and graphics. The idea is to design content to lose control of it, have others repost it, see it spread on social networks. The more it spreads the further it reaches. Sharable in this context means content that is interesting, is clear and addresses issues that people care about. Brodock notes that people are consuming information in different ways and that “you need to keep up with them.” Skimming is a fact of life these days, and that means headlines that grab attention and messages that people care about. Bradock also encourages non-textual communication. Videos and graphics are important to tell the right story. Both also need to have good production values; the typical internet user has little patience for cluttered images or long, dull videos.

Jim Richardson talks about social commerce for the cultural sector as a way to frame what people are looking for on the internet and via social media. He says that content should meet four values—it should be educational, social, entertaining, and it should lend itself to some kind of emotional reaction or connection with the viewer. Related to this is the idea of brand. A brand is what a company or institution means to people in terms of personal expectations. Boiled down to its essence, a brand makes people feel a certain way about something. Brands are usually associated with business, but the concept applies equally well to cultural heritage institutions. People usually already have positive feelings about archives, an we can leverage that to build audiences an promote the value of preserving digital cultural heritage.

The question of audiences for digital preservation is important. There are three basic audiences: information professionals; students and researchers; and the general public. As noted earlier, details about standards, tools and best practices are popular among information professionals. Any institution doing digital preservation should actively discuss that work using social media with the practitioner community. This community is very receptive to questions, which is another avenue for an institution to extend its reach, share information and acquire new knowledge about digital preservation.

Students and researchers are the most traditional audiences for many cultural heritage organizations. Even so, there is still much to be done in terms of engaging with them about digital preservation. Teachers tend to be interested in digital preservation in the context of learning about modern culture. The Library of Congress does quite a bit of outreach in connection with schools. NDIIPP has produced YouTube videos on this topic, including Digital Natives Explore Digital Preservation and America’s Young Archivists. Both videos aim to provide insights into how children think about issues relating to digital preservation, particularly the types of materials they think are worth collecting and preserving. The term “researcher” has always been a bit vague, and it certainly can apply to a broad cross section of users today. Institutions also have much to gain by engaging with users about how to improve collections, as well as access to them.

Members of the public—and information professionals who interact with public—are interested in personal digital archiving. NDIIPP has generated extensive guidance for personal digital archiving, and that information is very popular. An online webinar sponsored by the American Library Association featured information from NDIIPP on preserving personal digital photographs. This presentation was part of Preservation Week, held in April 2012, and discussed simple steps people could take to select, organize, describe and preserve personal collections. The webinar attracted over 500 people, which ALA said was a record for such an event. The intent was for people to come away with a new appreciation for digital preservation, both for themselves and for our culture. Providing advice and assistance with personal digital archiving is a promising and worthwhile approach for cultural heritage organizations to reach and to influence the larger community. One reason is professional: personal digital content will come into institutional collections, and it is helpful to have it well organized beforehand. Another reason is that helping people manage their digital photographs builds community support. The need for personal digital archiving advice is going to keep growing and many, many people are going to want it. Librarians, archivists and museum curators are the right people to give this advice.

Once an institution has identified the audiences for its social media communication, the next step is to plan for maximum visibility. This comes back to a an earlier point: create content that the target audience wants. This principle applies to all varieties of communication, and goes beyond social media. Institutions need to have some idea where their audience looks for information and engagement. A worthy investment of time is to identify specific social media authors, both individuals or institutions. Observing their patterns of communication can help refine institutional practices, including how to push information out in a way that audiences are likely to notice. It is also important to find out how best to cross-promote information among different channels. Blog posts are usually well-promoted on Twitter, and YouTube videos can be embedded on Facebook pages. People are accustomed to looking for information in different places, and the steady flow of social media information means that users will need multiple chances to view content.

Advertisers and economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition.” In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Why should anyone care about what an institution has to offer? What makes its product, service, or message valuable? Why should people care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding public attention. Capturing even fleeting attention can be a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Does an institutional Tweet, blog post or video look remotely interesting to an audience? Will they pause even for a second when they see the title? Will they click over to investigate further? If they do, will they care enough to read (or watch) the complete message? Affirmative answers to these questions depend on reaching people on an emotional level. The true goal is to get people to care so much that they will engage (leave a comment, say), or be influenced (by thinking, perhaps, something like “digital preservation really is important”). Ultimately an institution aims to activate community members to recognize and support its mission, including the need for digital preservation.

This raises the issue of selecting social media channels. There are, of course, many choices. The NDIIPP program has significant experience with three social media tools. One is YouTube, for which the program has produced a dozen short videos to promote digital preservation. Examples include Why Digital Preservation is important to You, and Preserving Digital Photographs. Both are aimed at a general audience and are meant to convey practical information under the Library of Congress brand. DigitalPreservationEurope has put out an excellent video series modeled on children’s cartoon shows. The videos feature the adventure of Digiman as he fights evil characters representing threats to digital content. These videos are extremely popular and quite effective. The Archipelproject in Belgium has also put out a series of great videos that present digital preservation issues in an entertaining and informative manner. The project does well in offering information geared to different audiences, with videos that are aimed at the public and other videos that discuss technical details of interest to digital preservation practitioners.

Twitter is a very compelling tool for a cultural heritage institution to distribute and consume information. NDIIPP is active on Twitter, and has well over 10,000 followers. The account has sent out over 2,200 individual tweets about topics such as digital preservation partnerships, new tools the we have developed and meetings and events that we host. We also distribute information about what other institutions are doing around the world. In addition, we publicize important meetings as well as other topics that people care deeply about, including jobs and professional educational opportunities. The depth and variety of information available on Twitter is awe-inspiring. Even casual use will yield rich details including links to major initiatives, new tools, sessions at professional conferences and more. Blogs offer a longer form of communication than Twitter. The NDIIPP program pushes out a great deal of information through its blog, The Signal. There are also many other worthwhile blogs that promote digital preservation in the context of cultural heritage organizations, including the UK National Archives and the European Open Planets Foundation, as well as Chris Prom’s personal blog, Practical E-Records, which is especially strong in reviewing a variety of tools and services for archives.

Many institutions use multiple social media tools. This is a good strategy because it allows for cross channel communication and broadens the reach of distributed information. An excellent example of using social media to promote digital preservation is the State Archives and State Library of North Carolina, which have a project to engage citizens using a blog, twitter and Flickr. This project is also an great example of connecting the personal concerns of individuals to the larger societal need for increased attention to digital preservation. These blog and twitter streams often talk about issues related to keeping digital photographs and other personal materials, which helps people become more aware of the larger cultural concern for preserving digital content.

After undertaking a social media strategy, it is important to measure its reach and effectiveness. There are many potential metrics; individual institutions will have to decide which kinds of measures are most helpful. Another way to gauge results is through soft or qualitative measures. These are measures that do not involve numbers—they include tracking comments and other engagements from users, testimonials and other mentions.

For blogs, its is useful to determine which individual posts are most popular over time. The titles of the five blog posts from The Signal blog over the past year, ranked by total views, are as follows.

  1. Four Easy Tips for Preserving your Digital Photographs
  2. What Skills Does a Digital Archivist or Librarian Need?
  3. Digital Preservation File Formats for Scanned Images
  4. Mission Possible: Add Descriptions to Digital Photos
  5. When I Go Away: Getting Your Digital Affairs in Order

Note that topics relating to personal digital archiving predominate. NDIIPP is pleased with the reach of these messages, as it is clear that they have gone well beyond the archives and library community and out to the general public. It is hard to tell at the moment if getting people engaged on personal digital archiving will elevate overall public awareness about digital preservation. But, at the least, there are some positive indicators.

Qualitative measures are just as important as numbers in terms of determining effectiveness of social media implementations. Here are some examples of qualitative measures for The Signal blog over the past year.

  • Blog mentioned on high-traffic sites
    • Huffingtonpost.com
    • Grammy.com
    • Federal Computer Week (noted as one of the “best in the federal blogosphere”)
    • Several appearances in daily count of “Top U.S. Government Links”
  • Blog mentioned on diversity of sites
    • Genealogy and family history
    • Art and museums
    • Theatrical
    • Photography
    • Estate planning
    • Public, academic and special libraries
    • State legislature
    • Many, many personal blogs

The reach is extensive in terms of different domains and areas of interest. The NDIIPP program is especially pleased to see that lots of personal bloggers—people blogging on their own rather than for an institution—are mentioning the work of the program. That is more evidence the program is making connections outside the practitioner community, and hopefully raising general awareness about digital preservation. The reach is diverse in terms of geography as well. Most websites that mentioned The Signal were in North America or Europe, but many other countries also are represented.

Cultural heritage organizations collect qualitative and quantitative measures with the intent to analyze and improve a social media strategy. At this point, it is too soon to know exactly how effectively cultural heritage institutions can make use of social media. The cultural heritage sector might well draw from the experience of commercial advertisers and draw on focus groups, opinion surveys and other methods to understand how to refine our message and better engage with our communities. Effective engagement is crucial for cultural heritage organizations to build community support. And community support is the bedrock upon which sustainable operation is built.

Links valid as of 8/4/2012

Oct 102011
 

Innovation is one of those words that is as loaded as it is inescapable.

It appears constantly on billboards, TV commercials and political speeches. I’ll wager every big organization in the world lays claim to the concept through a mission statement or some other purported self-description. Our hopes for improved institutional outcomes–from schools, from hospitals, from governments–are all stoked by a devotion to the glimmering promise of doing things better in a new way.

alien innovate, by TaranRampersad, on Flickr

alien innovate, by TaranRampersad, on Flickr

What about digital preservation? Is innovation the key to dealing with all that valuable digital data?

Possibly.

This is, of course, an very unsatisfying answer. Innovation should be the answer to everything, most especially to all things digital.

“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time,” is a quote attributed Bill Gates, and at first glance it seems to ring with a self-evident truth.

When considered from the popular perspective of innovation, digital preservation looks like a straightforward challenge for libraries, archives, museums and other entities that long have kept information on behalf of society. All they need are some new ideas, practices and tools–all of which information technology excels in delivering. There’s also a neat symmetry here: technology created new kinds of information for libraries to preserve, so technology can help libraries do the job.

But it isn’t quite so easy. The basic problem is what Larry Downes has called “the laws of disruption,” of which the most fundamental is  “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic and legal systems change incrementally.”  Downes notes that innovative digital technology has thoroughly roiled many social conventions and that “nothing can stop the chaos that will follow.”  An overly dramatic statement, yes, but it illustrates that innovation is not a safe, orderly or controllable process.  It sends out big ripples of disruption with an unpredictable impact.

Consider the irony: organizations tout innovation as a way to thrive and prosper when the truth of the matter is that real innovation often destabilizes and destroys.

Libraries and other memory organizations are now bouncing on ripples of disruption, and the ride likely will stay scary for the foreseeable future.  Innovation puts these institutions in a bind: they are now confronted with a huge array of demands and choices that traditional structures are ill-suited to address.  They face an irresistible need for change.  But the further they stick their toes into the waves of innovation, the greater the potential for even more destabilization.  And since most institutions strongly resist that which threatens their stability, they have an unmovable incentive to resist real change.  All this means that the ability of traditional institutions to fully meet the need for digital preservation is in doubt.

Future as Disruption, by Fu Man Jew, on Flickr

Future as Disruption, by Fu Man Jew, on Flickr

Well, that’s depressing.  Wait, though–there’s a another side to innovation that offers hope for meeting the digital preservation challenge. Many individual librarians and archivists are using new kinds of tools and services–such as LOCKSS and “micro-services“–to build local preservation solutions.

Even more significantly, individuals of all kinds are playing a role in determining what gets saved and how that content is used.  Consider the impact that one person–Brewster Kahle–has made over the years through the Internet Archive.  Jason Scott is getting high-profile attention for his grassroots work to preserve large volumes of web content abandoned by companies such as Yahoo!.  All kinds of average people are developing interest in personal digital archiving to preserve their family memories.

Tim O’Reilly, the visionary who first saw the development known as web 2.0, sees a major role for individuals in digital preservation.   Here’s a summary from an account of his talk at a recent Library of Congress meeting:

O’Reilly stressed the preservation role of people working outside of institutions.  He called for “baking in” more preservation functionality into tools used to create and distribute digital content to enable a more distributed stewardship mindset.  This is important because “the things that turn out to be historic are not thought to be historic at the time.”   O’Reilly also said one of the most tweetable bits at the meeting: “Digital preservation won’t be just the concern of specialists, it will be the concern of everyone.”

I have some sympathy with O’Reilly’s argument.  It builds on the powerful trend of individuals asserting control over how information is published, distributed and used.  The result of a broad-based popular effort to steward digital data would also address some fundamental preservation needs: lots of distributed copies that are open for active use.  Individuals also often can adapt to change with more flexibility than can institutions.

Ultimately, we have to hope that innovation pushes along the trend toward the democratization of digital preservation.  The more people who care about saving digital content, and the easier it is for them to save it, the more likely it is that bits will be preserved and kept available.

 

Mar 062011
 
Terra Cotta Archivists, Internet Archive

Terra Cotta Archivists, Internet Archive

I attended the Personal Digital Archiving conference in San Francisco last week. Some of the usual suspects in the world of digital preservation where there, most of whom are affiliated with institutions (including myself).

But there were also a few rugged individuals who, out of passion or some other impulse, are working alone to collect digital content.

These lone preservers deserve our thanks. Future users will thank them even more.

Most big collecting institutions–libraries, archives and museums–have yet to fully adopt their their attention to digital content, most especially born digital material.  The problems, wildly generalized, are fundamental:

  • Resource demands for managing traditional, non-digital holdings remain substantial.
  • New resources are hard to come by, and prospects for cuts loom.
  • Digital content is new and trendy, and may seem frivolous;  it is hard to know which of it merits saving.
  • Many–most?–staff have spent careers apart from digital material and are not eager to deal with it.
  • Many–most?–institutions have limited technological capacity or infrastructure to manage digital holdings.

Individuals acting on their own are free from these concerns.  They don’t have big legacy collections to worry about.  They don’t have to defend their actions to overseers.  It’s easy to get cheap technology to do the job.

PDA 2011 Conference Sign

The prime example of the lone collector is Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, which hosted PDA 2011.  Kahle and his helpers had web archiving to themselves for the first few years, when there was plenty of skepticism about the the value of the content.  Around 2000, some institutions began to selectively capture websites, often working in concert with the IA.  Today, large-scale web capture is underway around the world:  there are now over 30 national libraries and other entities devoted to the job.

Jason Scott spoke at the conference. Scott, proprietor of textfiles.com and collector of “marginalized data, the textfiles and message bases of dial-up bulletin board systems of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s,” is a self-described “tiring activist.” He said that much digital information was at risk, facing a “danger of deletion, a danger of being lost, a danger that a piece of history, with its value unrecognized and a lack of interest in what it might mean, might just be lost forever.”

Scott talked about a recent project to download a copy of the websites formerly housed on the Geocities web hosting service.  He passionately defended the value of this information against “the current natural order of things for hosting user-generated content [which] is this: Disenfranchise. Demean. Delete.”  Scott also advocated individual responsibility for one’s own personal content.  “Go to your own computer, plug in a USB stick and copy your documents folder, because that’s the only thing that nobody’s going to be able to save.”

All of this leads me to speculate that, when it comes to digital content, our culture is reverting back to an era when we depended on high-minded individuals to build singular collections of art, books, manuscripts and other documentary material.  The survival of much important information is due solely to individual initiative, as its true value only became apparent years later.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the era of user-generated content also includes the return of the heroic private collector.  A twist is that the heroics are now scalable.  The far end of the scale has people like Kahle and Scott.  At the near end are everyday people who do their best to keep family photos and the occasional email.

Libraries, archives and museums, of course, still have a major role to play.  If history is a guide, they will eventually assume stewardship responsibility for some private digital collections, and they will also expand their own curatorial interests into this realm.

 

 

Feb 242011
 
IMG_2582, by QuickLunarCop, on Flickr

IMG_2582, by QuickLunarCop, on Flickr

Personal digital archiving–actions that individuals undertake to enhance the persistence and accessibility of their own digital photographs, videos and other content that documents their lives–is something of a hot topic.

The Internet Archive is hosting its second Personal Archiving conference today and tomorrow with an impressive lineup of speakers.  The Library of Congress held its first Personal Archiving Day in 2010 and has plans to hold another, again in connection with the American Library Association’s Preservation Week.

Researchers are considering the topic, such as Cathy Marshall from Microsoft. At least one blog,  The Digital Beyond,  focuses on “your digital existence and what happens to it after your death.”

As the diversity above shows, there are lots of ways to think about the subject.  But let’s consider things from the collective perspective of libraries, archives and museums.  There are three main reasons that memory organizations should think about personal archiving.

1. Collecting content. This is the obvious one.  Institutions that seek documents from individuals will naturally have interest in some type of personal digital material.  Examples might be literary manuscripts, special collections, artist “papers,” and family and genealogical collections.  Heretical though it may be, even official archives may find themselves working with email and other digital records that strongly resemble personally managed documentation.

2. Advising and assisting. Any organization that wants to bring in personal digital information had better be prepared to provide effective guidance to prospective donors.  There are is a need to cultivate good long-term practice for individuals who create and manage information, as well as to guide those who want to donate content in the near term.

3. Engaging with users.   Many choices are creatively and persistently vying for people’s attention.   Memory organizations have to do the same to build collections and, even more importantly, to grow their audience.  Given the harsh economic climate, collecting institutions are under more pressure than ever to justify their relevance in people’s lives.

I’ve thought for a while now that the huge growth of personal digital information presents a great opportunity for memory organizations to connect with people in new ways.  Individuals suddenly find themselves with big digital collections that they have conflicting feelings about.  On the one hand, the content is personally meaningful and fun to share.  On the other hand, people can be overwhelmed by their digital information and find themselves unsure how to manage it over the long term.

A memory organization is in the business of highlighting the meaning in collections, sharing them and preserving them.  True, this work hasn’t traditionally focused on average people–but that could change. Why not solicit personal material for, say, temporary exhibit?  Why not host local personal archiving workshops?  Why not be a link between the digital information that people care about today and the people who will care about it tomorrow?

It might well be that a successful memory organization is one that expands the idea of public service to working directly with people to help them better appreciate and keep their personal digital information.