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Digital Lives - British LibraryLibraries all over the globe are creating digital preservation and curation policies, and are putting theory into practice to preserve large quantities of born digital material in their collections.  But what about the increasing amounts of valuable digital content from our personal lives, such as documents, photos and email? 

According to a report from the recent Digital Lives (external link) research project, preservation of personal digital objects is under-researched and deserves more attention.  Digital Lives is led by the British Library, in partnership with University College London and the University of Bristol, with funding provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain.

The project's companion report, "Digital Lives: Personal Digital Archives for the 21st Century. An Initial Synthesis (external link)," quoted a prediction from the International Data Corporation that makes a good case for the launching of such a project: by 2010, 70% of the world’s digital content will be created by individuals rather than organizations.  If that's true, the Digital Lives project hasn't arrived a moment too soon; though individuals now produce most of the digital content, there is little public awareness about digital preservation.

A major theme running throughout the Digital Lives report is advocacy, the urgent need for libraries to aggressively promote the importance of personal digital archiving and to offer education and solutions to the public. According to the British Library's Jeremy Leighton John, lead author of the report, libraries and archives have a great responsibility to keep the public informed. "Archivists really need to step forward and promote the benefits of personal digital archiving and help provide the tools to make this happen," he said. "The sooner the archival community gets involved, the better."

The comprehensive 200-page report covers a lot of territory, and much of the information was gathered through direct feedback from a range of participants.  For example, there were two surveys, one directed at the public and one at academics.  The survey findings indicated that the most valued category for academics is documents and for the general public it's photographs.  Overall, however, they found that serious data loss affects academics and the public about the same; both groups cited "the inability to find files" as the main cause of information loss.

Digital Lives also held a user forum to get the scholar's perspective. John pointed out the two major issues that came out of the forum, "One was a concern for the authenticity of digital objects, making sure it's the genuine, original item," he said. "The other issue was a need to have access to this material as quickly as possible." The Digital Lives project also included a three-day conference directed at all potential users (archivists, researchers and the public). Findings from the user forum and the conference became part of the report. 

A major issue in the report centers around the technology required for digital archiving: what is available, how it should be used, what kinds of tools should be developed and what a collaboration with online service providers might look like. Another major issue is technological obsolescence, older media formats (remember the floppy disk ) being replaced at such speed that it is hard for most individuals to keep up.

Legal issues, which the report refers to as "info-ethics," included copyright, data protection and privacy, freedom of information and liability. The report also emphasized digital forensics, the ability to determine the provenance and the original version of a document, which is a big concern to archivists.

Without setting forth a definitive guideline, the project did reach some conclusions.  In general, everyone should be encouraged to maintain and store a personal digital archive and keep an additional copy in another location, perhaps with a commercial provider  A draft "Process and Tool Kit" ties everything together into a work flow diagram, and helps illustrate a potential real-world solution. 

New terminology is emerging from this study. For example, in 2000 the British Library coined the term "eManuscripts" to represent all personal digital objects.  The report also mentions "iCuration," or curation conducted over the network.

Another new and colorful bit of terminology is the phrase "archives in the wild."  It may not sound very curator-like, but it's a good descriptor for what it represents: all of the individual digital objects, from the public and from institutions, scattered in different locations and not contained in a long-term repository.   John said, "There is enormous potential for social scientists to tap these 'archives in the wild' in order to ask research questions about social behavior."  

So what is the strategy going forward? "There is an interest in pursuing more about forensics as well as the study of iCuration." said John. Cultural institutions could work with internet service providers to help facilitate the archiving of personal digital items.

Still, the Digital Lives project draws the clear conclusion that libraries and archives must assume responsibility for informing the public about digital preservation and personal curation, and for exploring ways of mediating new approaches to access.  John said, "We are looking into making guidelines available as well as podcasts and an international wiki that would be very useful for evaluating new products and techniques."   He also noted that there will be a final version of the project report available in the near future.

Personal digital items initially have value to the individuals who generated them but once those items are transferred to a larger digital archive they will have a collective value to society.  As institution-based digital archives grow, the work of the Digital Lives project will help facilitate the growth of personal digital archiving as well. Large amounts or small, it all has potential as cultural treasure.

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