Mar 222011

I assembled an archive of the great #nytmuseums tweet chat held last week; it’s a 49 page PDF document (over 1400 tweets), 522kb.  I can’t guarantee that I got everything, but it looks reasonably complete.

The chat covered all kinds of things, but focused largely on how cultural institutions can use social media to meet their missions, especially engaging with users.

RT’s have been excluded from the archive.  The tweets are listed chronologically starting from 3/16/2011 through until 3/19/2011.  The event was billed as a “lunch time chat” and officially kicked off at 1pm on 3/17/2011.  Lunch is relative, I suppose.

For background information, see The New York Times special “museums online” article that kick started things.  Hyperallergic also covered the event extensively.

I use this blog to write about culture, technology and preservation.  I also tweet about the same @blefurgy.

The chat archive file is located here.

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 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.


Jan 112011

red 6 by holeymoon, on Flickr

At this point, most organizations have plunged into some form of digital communication and outreach.  Some are further ahead than others, but just about everyone needs to do more.

For cultural heritage organizations, the necessity seems clear.  The Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy declares “once on the fringe of institutional and public awareness, Web and New Media initiatives are now considered to be a critical part of the Institution’s core activities and future: They need to be funded and managed accordingly.”

Organizations that do embrace the web and other forms of new media still face what can be called the fierce urgency of how: where to focus attention and how to break the issue into manageable chunks.  While every institution has unique needs, there are some basic ideas to consider.  Communicopia has a fine blog post, Fresh Start: 5 resolutions for your digital program in 2011.  I’ve outlined the five goals for improvement below with a focus on cultural heritage institutions.  The sixth one is mine.

1.      Shift Your Perspective. Understand that the internet is more than a digital brochure; it’s everything you do. Increasingly, it’s the primary channel where your audiences and stakeholders are hearing about you, getting information and getting things done.

2.      Connect Digital to Strategy — Everyone’s.  Make sure your digital tactics clearly connect to your core organizational goals, messages and priorities.  (The quote above from the Smithsonian plan is a good illustration of this intent).

3.      Enable a Responsive & Holistic Structure.  Avoid dysfunctional implementation. Leading organizations today approach digital as a system, with a central digital team providing direction but with innovation and even some execution shared with public-facing internal departments.

4.      Bow to the King: Content.  Use compelling content–narrative and visual–produced from your deepest areas of expertise.  Staff need to be good storytellers for digital outreach.

5.      Integrate Network Thinking into Internal Processes.  Make use of digital tools to facilitate knowledge sharing and productivity within the institution and among collaborating institutions. Collaboration among institutions might, in fact, be a critical part of your outreach strategy.

6.      Get noticed and stay that way.  Explore the available digital channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever new new thing comes along tomorrow) and find the outlets that work best for your institution.  Post interesting content regularly and work hard to engage visitors.  Always remember that you are competing for users with short attention spans and unlimited choices.

Thinking about goals like these is a worthwhile for any library, archives, museum or other cultural heritage organization.  How far you get acting on them right now depends on lots of things: management willingness, staff culture, institutional priorities and, of course, money.  But there can be little doubt that digital disruption will continue pushing institutions to change.

Dec 292010

Why should anyone care about digital preservation?

Those of us who work in the field ponder this question. Our personal conviction is secure; we know that select digital information is valuable for current and future use.  We know also how fragile that information is and how easily it can disappear.

But making the case to funders, institutional leaders and even Uncle Bob can be tough.  Layers of opacity get in the way.  With what seems to be unlimited information about everything on the web 24-7, arguing that data is at risk may seem counterintuitive.  Venturing into topics like bit rot, media migration and metadata augmentation often leads to glazed eyes.  Making the case that new forms of information, such as social media and websites, should be collected by institutions that preserve Gutenberg Bibles and Civil War documents can cause consternation.

If our culture is going to succeed in preserving important digital information, more effective arguments are needed.  I think there are a couple of messages and one medium in particular that are worth exploring.

The messages are basic.  Economic and social progress has depended for centuries on information kept by libraries, archives, museums and other collecting organizations.  For this benefit to continue, these organizations must expand their capacity to keep digital information, which is now the dominant form of documented human knowledge.  There is a nice hook, too: personal archiving.

With so many digital cameras, smartphones, laptops and tablets in circulation, many people are themselves responsible for personal digital collections.  Helping them understand the need to care for and preserve their family digital photographs also builds a larger awareness about the value of digital preservation.  One might say that like politics, digital preservation is local.

Video may be the best medium yet invented to put information in the human brain.  One recent theory credits this to “dual coding,” which basically means the information that we see and hear is both easier to learn and remember.

Maybe this underlies a natural tendency to prefer audio-visual over text.  In any event, advertisers certainly get it.  “There’s no doubt that web videos are cool and fun to watch – certainly more fun than reading page after page of text,” proclaims the Switchmarketing website.  “But does it actually work? Absolutely!”

This sentiment was reinforced for me when I asked a savvy educational specialist about the best way to communicate about digital preservation on the web.   His advice went right to the point:  “short videos like you see on YouTube.”

Starting in 2009, the Library of Congress digital preservation team began producing videos (full disclosure: I am part of the team).  The idea was to promote digital preservation as a fundamental part of the Library’s mission and why it matters to individuals.  The assumption here was that both these messages would communicate best in a casual, entertaining way.

To this point, the team has produced videos on subjects such as Why Digital Preservation is Important for You, Digital Natives Explore Digital Preservation and Bridging Physical and Digital Preservation.  The videos are available on the website and also on YouTube.  They have proven reasonably popular, with YouTube view counts of around 1,000.

Another organization, DigitalPreservationEurope, has produced six animated videos reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons.  The action has Digiman and Team Digital Preservation facing off against a variety of evil characters bent on thwarting them.  The DPE videos have proven popular indeed, with Digital Preservation and Nuclear Disaster: An Animation racking up over 33,000 YouTube views.

These two bodies of work constitute the main corpus of what can be called digital preservation awareness videos.  I’d say that they represent a good start.  But the competition for attention is fierce.  Consider The 10 Most Watched YouTube Videos of 2010, which include The Bed Intruder Song and Annoying Orange Wazzup with 58 million and 29 million views respectively.

All this points to a the effectiveness of web video as a highly effective channel for communication, particularly for younger people.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project presents evidence that more “millennials” (ages 18-33) use the web for watching videos than they do for getting news or shopping.

The only challenge is to somehow work in digital preservation between autotuned declarations and talking fruit!

Dec 262010

Lots of people who work in libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage organizations need to become more familiar with Information Technology.  While some staff are well-grounded in the subject, many have gaps in knowledge of fundamental terms, concepts and trends.

This is a problem.  The pressure is on to implement social media services, put holdings online, develop innovative websites and manage digital collections.  Organizations—and staff—that lag in this area run the risk of losing relevancy.  And loss of relevancy can have an unfortunate economic impact.

Organizations need to have staff who are familiar with IT basics.  Doing this is tricky.  What exactly are “the basics”?  How are they best explained?  And most importantly, to what end is this knowledge supposed to be put?

I know of one pretty good example:  Technology Made Simple: An Improvement Guide for Small and Medium Libraries, by Kimberly Bolan and Robert Cullin.   The American Library Association published this book in 2006.  It looks pretty good, but in full disclosure I haven’t actually read it.  But I have browsed the “web extra” page for it, and can say the online information provided is worthwhile (not to mention free).

Before I list some of the details on the web, it is useful to consider what the authors say about their intent:  “…librarians need a how-to technology manual for vision, planning, and understanding, not a how-to manual for configuring a router and server.”  Just right.  Add to that a starting place to learn foundational information needed for working with vendors, selling ideas to funders and positioning themselves for taking quick advantage of the next new tech wonder.

The web content covers a range of topics:

  • Worksheets and More
  • Resources
  • Resource Libraries
  • Job Descriptions
  • Publication and Marketing Ideas

All of these topics are useful, but a highlight is the worksheets section, which has all sorts of checklist templates that can be used to do a variety of self-assessments.  My experience is that these kinds of tools are very useful for staff to gain quick (and relatively painless)  insights about institutional capacities and areas that need improvement.  Checklists are not a silver bullet, but they can put an organization on the road to meaningful improvement.

The resource does have some limitations.  It is going on five years old, and that is a long time in Internet years.  There is no mention of Facebook, Twitter or any other social media service.  Same for mobile Internet, Flickr, YouTube or other Web 2.0 tools.  Plus the book itself appears to be only available as a physical object, not as a downloadable file or e-book.  The resources web page alone has about 30 dead or broken links according to the W3C Link Checker.  While not unusual for information this old, still is a big problem.

Here’s an idea for ALA and other professional organizations that cater to cultural heritage professionals: produce more of this kind of basic help and keep it current.  There could even be a some kind of centralized resource for archivists, librarians and museum staff to cover common areas—and there are many—with more specialized information for each kind of institutional type.   That would be an efficient, collaborative way to maintain a useful resource.