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Self-Preservation through Personal Digital Archiving

Posted on February 27, 2013 by Grace Lile

When I tell someone that I am an archivist, I sometimes notice a fleeting guilty look flash across their face. “Oh, I need help with that!” they will say, or: “I have too many photos and they’re so disorganized!” Suddenly everybody—whether activist or civilian—needs an archivist.

‘Personal digital archiving’ (PDA) is a movement that seeks to address this need: the archival challenges posed by our digital, networked lives from the point of view of the individual rather than the institution.  Whether we’re managing our professional or personal records or both, whether for our private enjoyment only or for posterity, archiving begins at home. But wasn’t this always so? Yes, but it’s the digital nature of communications and documentation that has upended our lives; in the clichéd but still-apt metaphor, those attic shoeboxes of decades-old photos are no longer an option. Digital material is inherently short-lived compared to older media such as paper and film, and has a tendency to proliferate rapidly given the low cost and effort to share, duplicate, save and store. Without strategies, workflows and active management, the contents of the electronic shoebox will likely disintegrate or disappear.

The 4th Personal Digital Archiving Conference, co-hosted by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and NDIIPP, was held February 21 and 22 at the University of Maryland.  I attended with my WITNESS Media Archive colleague Yvonne Ng; the work we are doing currently to enable archiving by human rights activists is exactly parallel to these other efforts. Some important resonances:

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Archivists need to create simple tools and resources accessible to non-archivists:

Cal Lee showed us Context Miner – a tool to run automated crawls on social media to collect, analyze and present data. Jenny Shaw mentioned Karenware, a suite of Windows-based desktop tools for managing and finding files. Want to archive an entire website? Mat Kelly has developed WAIL, in essence your very own Wayback machine. And some of the best resources were simple tipsheets and guides, not unlike ones we’ve shared here and continue to develop for activists.

Privacy, ethics, and the paradox of persistence:

At the heart of digitality is a paradox: on the one hand we know that so much of what we want to preserve cannot last without assertive intervention, threatened as it is by bit-rot, rapid format obsolescence, and fugitive online services. At the same time, the things we want to make disappear—our deleted photos, private chats, contact information that could put someone’s life in jeopardy—live on in corporate databanks, in other people’s collections, and online.

Mel Hogan cited the Max Schrems Facebook case as one example. Naomi Nelson of Duke demonstrated how easy it was to retrieve potentially private information about someone through digital data we hardly ever think about, like cache files, cookies, and “deleted” files that still live on our hard drives. And papers including Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Robot Historians addressed the ethical implications at the very heart of any archival endeavor.

PDA for Human Rights: The Activists’ Guide to Digital Video Archiving:

One community not explicitly addressed at #PDA2013 is the one we’re focused on: human rights activists and citizen witnesses.  What steps can activists take, and what tools can they use, to ensure their footage can be authenticated and verified? Where can they store their video so that it cannot be seized? How do they find and retrieve a particular video from among thousands? How do they ensure the usability of the video from a technological standpoint, over time?

Yvonne and I are in the process of developing an online Activists’ Guide to Digital Video Archiving, due to debut later this spring. What is it? A simple, web-based collection of tips, tools, guidelines, recommended practices, how-tos and no-to-low cost resources to demystify and better enable archiving or archive-oriented practices by human rights advocates and organizations.

Interested?  Let us know.  We’ll be seeking feedback from archivists and activists both, and would love to hear from you.

And – if you want to learn more about PDA: check out the Library of Congress website for guides, tip sheets, videos, and more; and the #PDA2013 videos at Internet Archive.

Grace Lile is a veteran moving image archivist, and as the Operations Director, she’s also responsible for keeping WITNESS running smoothly. Follow her @gracelile.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Sam Wilson February 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I think this point about providing tools to non-archivists to make it easy to create and maintain PDAs is most important. There’s still such a lack of understanding of the issues, beyond a basic idea of backing-up filesystems!

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