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 at the Library of Congress; post updated: originally published in Jan. 2011

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, 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, 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
    • 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?


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.


Jun 052011

Digital preservation used to be the affair of a few geeky keepers who recognized the value of lonely, obscure data.  But as information technology has spread across our culture, we are developing an intense, long-term relationship with digital content.

I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

"I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

Cyberspace When You’re Dead is a good example.  “Suppose that just after you finish reading this article,” begins The New York Times Magazine article, “you keel over, dead.  …what happens to [the] version of you that you’ve built with bits? Who will have access to which parts of it, and for how long?”

As ledes go, that’s sexy as hell.  It nimbly couples our mortality with our digital legacy.  Both are highly personal, endlessly fascinating and elude easy answers.

Digital legacy refers to things like your Facebook page and Twitter account, as well as the collective cultural mass on (and off) the internet.  It’s digital photographs, health records, government data and every other kind of documentation that you can think of.  The legacy keeps growing because it serves a host of compelling personal and community purposes. Yet as our digital commitment deepens, so do questions about the relationship.  Lots of average people now worry about things that used to only give archivists and librarians pangs: what pieces of the legacy should be kept?  How do we do it?  Who gets to look at it?

Angst is boiling up all over the place.  How Important Is It To Preserve Our Digital Heritage? recently asked Techdirt.  The story details the grassroots labor of love to preserve the content of Google Video, now that the Googleplex has decided to get out of that business, and similar efforts to rescue content from Friendster and GeoCities, two other defunct sites.

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

The people involved in these efforts are passionate amateurs–their collective nom de web is “the archive team”–who donate their time because they believe it’s the right thing to do.  But passion only takes one so far.  The article lists some of the many issues that remain in the relationship between the team and their rescued content, such as how to deploy the right technology and how to to deal with obsolete software and file formats.   Techdirt aslo asks a reasonable question: if the relationship is worth saving, why not seek professional help: “should we have, maybe even one on each continent or in each country, a modern Library of Alexandria?”

Like other issues associated with our digital preservation engagement, this question evades a simple answer.  And I’m not even talking about the fact that much of the current thought in library and archival circles is that digital preservation is best approached in a distributed manner based on collaboration among many institutions.  As the comments posted on Techdirt indicate, the big concern is trust.  Many people worry that government–the presumed benefactor of “a modern Library of Alexandria”–may not be an honest broker in terms of what is selected and how it is kept.

“I really don’t care how much is preserved as long as it’s done by private organizations as opposed to government mandate,” proclaims one commentAnother commenter states that “A third party might have a mandate to preserve as much as possible, regardless of PoV or source, whereas a government entity might be tempted to archive predominantly artifacts showing them in a favourable or neutral light.”  As of this writing there are no comments about fears of government using preserved information to violate personal rights, but that concern ripples across the minds of many people as well.

I feel safe making two predictions about the pas de deux between us and our digital legacy.  First, public attraction and attention to digital preservation will continue to expand, along with number of gigabytes we keep–and are kept about us.

Second, successfully coping with the issues attendant to the relationship between people and data will turn on communication and trust: we need additional  authorities to help plot the way forward.  Personally, I would like to see a new high-profile effort, adequately supported with public and private funds, take this on.  It would be just the ticket to strengthen a bond of faith between us and our digital content.

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.


Feb 212011
Digging Through The Archives Tonight (Stage 1)

Digging Through The Archives Tonight (Stage 1), by raider3_anime, on Flickr

Evan Carroll, over on The Digital Beyond, asks in a recent post about how personal digital archives might serve the same emotional identidy function as traditional tangible objects.

He notes that a grandmother might pass on grandfather’s watch with some context about how he constantly checked it during the recipient’s birth.  “Now this is more than a watch,” he writes. “It’s an object imbued with meaning. It has the ability to remind you of your grandparents and is thus an object of identity preservation.”

So, he asks, can digital objects serve a similar function?

This struck a chord, and I commented on the post:

“How do we imbue digital archives with meaning?” Great question.

I recently digitized my family’s 35mm slide collection, put them on CDs and sent everyone a copy.  All good, except that now we don’t go through our periodic ritual of projecting them in the dark with everyone watching together. Well, we could, but 1) we can see them any time we want individually,  2) it doesn’t make sense to pull the original slides out of their archival sleeves, put them back in those horrible carousels and fire up the unwieldy projector and 3) showing them digitally in the dark just isn’t the same experience.

There was something about the physicality of the originals, along with the effort it took to show them, along with the group experience in viewing them that made those slides special to me from childhood. My family now has tons of digital photos that we sometimes share on Facebook and Flickr, which is great. But the pictures are so easy to post and to view that they just don’t seem as “special” as the slides once did. Plus–let’s face it–the fact that digital photos consist of intangible electrons rather than nice solid atoms imparts an oddly tenuous quality to them.

Recently my family has been doing more photo sharing and commenting via Facebook, which for me kindles some of the sense I had during the old slide shows. Maybe the family that posts together, emotes together? Perhaps people should be encouraged to maximize the interactive aspect of online life as well as invited to curate and preserve their digital memories. Perhaps it’s possible to wrap all of this in a unified process somehow.

Unstated here, of course, is the assumption that people are more likely to care for and preserve objects with emotional meaning.  This makes sense.  It also is an important consideration in terms of how we frame education, tools and services in support of personal digital archiving, because the creators–and their families–will be the ones who do the work in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Comment above is slightly different from the version I posted on The Digital Beyond. Compulsive editor at work!

Feb 072011

The time had finally arrived: I had to bring some order to my large and disorderly collection of digital photographs.  I had been putting the task off for a long time in spite of the fact that I knew I was taking a risk in losing some to various digital calamities. Now, after having done the work, I’m pleased to say that it was easier than I expected.

I should the work was easy after I spent a fair bit of time tracking down the right tools and figuring out a method to do the job.  In the hope that I can save others some time, I’ve laid out my step-by-step process below, including the tools I used with Windows Vista.  Most of the tools have versions for other operating systems, and are free to download and use.

But before grabbing any tools, take some time to decide on a basic process for doing the job.  I first had to think about the steps involved; the professional term for this is “workflow.”  The steps suggested by the Library of Congress are one way to go.  (Full disclosure: I work with the team that established these guidelines.)

The steps are:

  • Identify
  • Decide
  • Organize
  • Make copies and store in different places
Family Fun

Family Fun

Identify. This was the hardest step for me.  I started taking digital photos in 2003 and had pictures scattered across a laptop, two desktops, two portable hard drives and a clutch of Secure Digital (SD) flash media cards.  I also had dozens of pictures on Flickr. Most of the shots were of family and friends, but there were also pictures of places, animals and other things.

I had grouped pictures into file folders using random subject names.  I also had copies of the same pictures in multiple places.  Plus I had not fully identified pictures nor deleted all the blurry or repetitive shots.  The end result: many hundreds of semi-organized pictures, incompletely described, with many duplicates.

My head throbbed when I realized the extent of the situation.  “No wonder I’ve been putting this job off,” I thought.  This quickly passed, however, as I counted my blessings.  I still had all the pictures that mattered.  It would have been so easy for a hard drive to fail and to loose many of them forever.  Time to get going.

Sample File Directory
Sample File Directory on Dropbox

The first thing I did was to install Dropbox, a tool that copies and syncs files among multiple computers.  It also stores a copy of the files on a web server in the cloud.

Dropbox gave me a simple backup system and also let me manage all my photos using either my laptop or desktop.  The program provides two gigabytes of storage for free; more space is available for a fee.

Next, I created a new file folder under “MyDropbox” named “all_photos” on my desktop computer.   I then made subfolders for  each of my multiple devices and locations where I had digital photographs.  After installing Dropbox on my other computers, I copied all the photographs into the appropriate subfolder.  The same process applies for the external hard drives: hook them up and copy the files.

Remember to copy the files, not move them.  Copy leaves the original files in place, while move deletes the originals.  You want the originals as a backup in case you make any mistakes with the steps that follow. You can delete them when finished, if you wish.

I still had the pictures on Flickr.  I used Flump to download them to Dropbox.  There are similar tools available, but Flump is easy to install and use.  It does require Adobe AIR 1.1, also free, to be installed first.  Note that the tool will only download the original image–it won’t bring back any different sizes and it won’t capture the tags or any other descriptive information that you entered through Flickr.

Dropbox will create identical copies of the folders and files on all the computers in which it is installed.  This might take some time to complete depending on the speed of your internet connection and the size of your collection.

Decide. Now that I had everything in one location the next step was to figure out what to keep.  There are a range of choices here.  You can choose not to choose: just keep everything, which has the advantage of saving time at this stage.  The problem with this approach is that you may have lots of copies of the same image, or can also have many shots that essentially duplicate the same scene.  These duplicative images add little to the content of you collection, take up extra space and can cause extra work and confusion later on.

I decided to delete duplicative images.  I used Visipics to identify them.  The program has settings to determine how strictly it determines what a duplicate is and also has an auto-select mode.  All detected duplicates are shown side by side with information such as file name, type and size.  You can also manually select the files you want to keep.  After running the program, I decided which images I really needed: in situations where I took six shots of basically the same thing I picked the one or two I liked best.  The best rule of thumb is to keep the highest resolution version an image, which is usually the original camera file.

Organize. This was the most time consuming step.  Actually, I have to confess that I’m still working on it.  I figure that it is better have full preservation of the files as quickly as possible while I continue to work on their management; I can always create updated preservation copies later on.  Plus I can work on individual pictures using Dropbox on either my desktop or my laptop, which is very convenient.  Organization involves several activities:

  • Give individual photos descriptive file names
  • Tag photos with names of people and descriptive subjects
  • Create a directory/folder structure on your computer to put the images you picked
  • Write a brief description of the directory structure and the photos

Copy files to archived_photos folder
Copy files to archived_photos folder

I started by deciding on a basic organization scheme for my photographs and by creating another set of file folders to implement it.

I named the main folder “archived_ photos” and created sub-folders for each year that I had pictures.  Under each year I used a few basic subject headings such as “around home,” “family visit,” “vacation” and so on.  Where necessary I created sub-folders under a heading.  I aimed to be as consistent as possible in using the same headings under different years.  This scheme serves two purposes.  First, it helped me organize my jumbled mass of pictures.  Second, it should help others use the collection in the future.

I used XnView to sort photographs into the right year and right subject heading, as well as to rename files. I chose a simple method of renaming involving subject names, but there are other more detailed options available. I also added captions.  Most of this work is done in the the XnView browse view, which shows a thumbnail version of the pictures along with the date it was taken.  This is all the information I needed to sort and caption the pictures, since I was the original photographer.

Another way to think about describing photos is as metadata.  Digital photo metadata is an extensive subject that is well worth learning more about.  Two great sources are and

The next task was to copy the revised photos to the new “archived_photos” directory as shown in the picture.  XnView is fairly intuitive, but it is worth reading the User Guide to figure out how to get the most out of it in browse view.

I then created a written listing of my photos as they are organized under “archived_photos.”  The list is a handy tool for reference and also will be very important to my children or anyone else who will be interested in the photographs later.  I used TreeSize Free to print a full, multi-page list.  The report has a lots of details, some of which can seem cryptic, but it does the job well.

Make Copies and Store in Different Places. This is the most important of all the steps because this is how you ensure that you won’t lose your digital photo collection due to a single point of failure, such as a crashed computer.  The handy Dropbox program already made copies of my photos on my laptop and desktop, as well as on a web server somewhere off on the cloud.  For some added insurance I also copied the entire “archived_photos” folder to a portable hard drive, which I stored in my safety deposit box along with the printed file listing.

This is not the end of the story, of course. I continue to take digital pictures, so I periodically have to add new images to my central archived collection using the steps above.  I also quickly browse my Dropbox files and portable hard drive every year or so to make sure all appears well.  My plan is to replace all the storage devices for my photos every five years.  When I get a new desktop, laptop, tablet or whatever, the first thing I will do is to install Dropbox and sync all the photo files.  I’ll also get a new portable hard drive–or whatever device eventually replaces it.

Jan 272011

Here is a tale from my personal experience that illustrates both the peril and promise of keeping digital information over time.

Lost & Found
Lost & Found, by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr

Starting in 1996 I put out a weekly e-mail newsletter called Culture in Cyberspace.  I used it to report on websites that I found interesting and also offered thoughts about the impact of information technology on society.  It was a small effort that had a mailing list of about 3,000 people when I shut it down in 1997.  I was starting a new day job, and wanted to fully invest myself there; in retrospect, I wish I had stuck with CinC, but that’s another story.

Anyway, this before the advent of blogs and there were comparatively few people using the internet to publish thoughts about the medium.  As a result, some of what I said got some modest attention.  I was interviewed for a story in Ms. Magazine about Cyber-Rape.  I made my way on to university class reading lists, including this one.   I was footnoted in a academic article, Scholarly Communication and Electronic Publication: Implications for Research, Advancement, and Promotion.  My observations apparently made it into the pricey journal Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies–at least Google claims I did; I’m not willing to pay $25 to the publisher to access the article for conformation.  Now, it may seem self-aggrandizing to draw attention to these small events from so long ago.  And while I confess to some lingering pride, my main point is that despite the obscurity and the age of my words, Google can still find many of them.

This is a good thing, because I lost about half of the original files.  I had them backed up on my laptop hard drive and on multiple sets of floppy disks, but must confess to falling short of proper personal archive management.  When I got a new laptop I neglected to copy the files before selling the old laptop on eBay.  I kept the backups with a large collection of floppy disks that I all but forgot about in the transition over to recordable CD-ROMs and flash drives.  When I eventually tried to access the disks 10 years later, they had errors and I could only retrieve some of the content.  I turned to Google as a last resort and was frankly amazed at how much still existed in the ether.

This is obviously not an ideal archival arrangement.  There is, for example, no assurance that the words purported to be mine are 100 percent authentic or are presented in what I would consider the right context.  The bigger issue is fragmentation: the Google CinC corpus is patchy in the extreme, presenting a range of information from brief mentions to, to excerpts, to complete issues.  It is a bit like trying to make sense of an ancient cuneiform library that has been smashed and scattered.  Still, for me in this case, it is far better to have the pieces than nothing.

Postmodern Philosophy Lulz #04 - Marshall McLuhan & A Cat With Cheese On Its Face
Postmodern Philosophy Lulz #04 – Marshall McLuhan & A Cat With Cheese On Its Face

Is this how future researchers will experience our world?  Perhaps.  We crank out gigantic quantities of digital documentation about every possible topic, often with no solid plan for how to preserve it.  The vastly distributed nature of the internet ensures that pieces of our collective output persist, and powerful search technology is adept at zeroing in on the tiniest fragments. This is like randomly grabbing chunks of information, throwing it in a digital Cuisinart and hitting “liquefy.”  At what point does the original structure and meaning of the information break down and combine into something different?

Maybe this is the wrong question, however.  One might ask instead: how much will anyone care in the future about hazy issues relating to authenticity, context and original intent?  One of the old rescued CinC articles recorded my thoughts on this very subject in connection with the then-recent book, Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle.

Turkle is, to my mind, without peer in her ability to probe how computers are changing us.  In Life on the Screen, she lucidly explained how information technology is facilitating a shift from respect for rational, systematic thought  to an embrace of  personal experience by the ability people have via the web to explore, rearrange, and reinterpret information.  We are becoming much more willing to accept and endorse subjective experience than to filter perception through ideas about what is “right” or “wrong.”  Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, explores these ideas further, and I look forward to reviewing it in a future post.

My experience with losing data, and then finding some of it on the internet, gives rise to a host of thoughts.  If I wanted to be totally pretentious I could say that it revealed the boundary between the Modern and the Postmodern (even though I can’t say I precisely know what those terms mean).  But most of all, I am left wishing that I had just done a better job preserving my digital files.