March 3, 2011 -- Staff from the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program attended the Personal Digital Archiving 2011 Conference (external link) in San Francisco on February 24-25. Held at the Internet Archive (external link), the meeting aimed to share information and build a practitioner community for ensuring long term access to personal digital information.
About 200 people attended the conference. There were representatives from large and small collecting institutions, large and small companies and academic departments, as well as a number of unaffiliated individuals.
In keeping with the varied audience, the speakers offered different perspectives. A sampling follows; videos of each speaker are in production and will be posted on the conference website when ready.
Cathy Marshall from Microsoft Research presented an opening keynote discussing her findings from interviews with people about their personal digital materials. She noted that the most common reason cited for digital loss was human error rather than technological issues. "People find that it is easier to keep all of their material than to cull it, and say that it is easier to lose it than maintain it," she said. Another issue she identified is that families often split roles. One individual is the chief photographer, another is the technical support person and someone else is the archivist/historian. Unless the rolls are synchronized there is a good chance that data will be incomplete.
Gary Wright, of FamilySearch, discussed some suggested best practices for personal digital archiving, including recommendations for digital formats and metadata. Jeremy Leighton John provided a perspective from the British Library, including use of an "ancestral computing" capability when processing digital manuscripts.
A session on Strategies, Tools and Services for Individuals featured Evan Carroll from The Digital Beyond, who raised the issue of imbuing digital content with emotional significance and meaning. Carroll noted that emotional attachment often compels people to take extra steps to manage and preserve their content. He also posed a question: "how do we enable passive capture of metadata—especially metadata that conveys details about why a document is important?"
Jason Scott, proprietor of textfiles.com and a self-described activist, talked with passion about rescuing abandoned digital content such as the websites formerly housed on the Geocities web hosting service. "I was a collector [of computer bulletin boards, shareware disks and other content] before I knew I was a collector," he said. “My first urge was to share it with as many people as possible." Scott is concerned that the history of computing is in danger. "A lot has been deleted… a lot of it has been deleted in epidemic proportions." He advocates personal intervention to rescue endangered content, especially one’s own. "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."
A panel discussion considered the costs of digital archiving. The panelists agreed that the costs are expected to be substantial, given the large volume of both born digital and scanned content that merits preservation. Jeff Ubois from PrestoCentre noted that "personal archiving is a great way to engage the public and maybe even collect small endowments from individuals." Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive agreed and suggested a tag line: "endow a terabyte" to support permanently accessible versions of personal archives. David S.H. Rosenthal from the Stanford LOCKSS team said that endowments might work, but was less optimistic than the other two speakers, stating that the costs are higher than people likely are willing to support.
Cliff Lynch, from the Coalition for Networked Information, provided the opening keynote for the second day. He described a major shift from the first appearance of personal digital archives, which took the form of documents that people created but did not share; these had much in common with traditional forms of personal papers. With the advent of social media and other "shared public spaces" personal archives are now much different in terms of context, ownership and vulnerability to loss.
Devin Becker of the University of Idaho and Collier Nogues of the University of California, Irvine discussed a survey they did of writers and their archiving practices. In general, most writers took an approach of benign neglect, although 80 percent said they would be interested in receiving information about recommended management practices.
Ted Nelson, an information technology pioneer, delivered a talk entitled How We Laughed: History, Keepage, Remembrance and Cram. Describing himself as "the only dissenter in the computer industry," he stated that "our current digital world is a nightmare honky tonk prison." His criticism centered on a belief that it was a mistake for computers to imitate paper because digital content lost structure and functionality that it otherwise could have had. Early computer developers did the equivalent of "tearing wings off a 747 and calling it a bus."