Personal archiving: a few links

As more and more information becomes digital, archivists wrestle with the issues of how to archive these materials. Complicating factors include a dizzying variety of platforms and types of software, planned obsolescence, usage licenses and copyright, and the sheer quantity of born-digital information.

But archivists are not the only ones wrestling with these issues. Ordinary people are faced with the same problems as they try to figure out how to save their e-mails, documents, photos, and other digital materials. Where once you could stick some handwritten letters in a shoebox and some family snapshots in a photo album and expect that they would last for a little while, you can’t do that any longer. Of course, if you really want those letters and snapshots to last for more than a little while, you shouldn’t put them in shoeboxes and random photo albums to begin with; ordinary people need help with preserving non-digital items as well.

There have been several recent events focusing on personal archiving, and I expect that this is a topic that will be getting more attention. It might even make a good career niche for enterprising archives professionals: how about a freelance archivist (or group of archivists) that you can hire to help you make sense of your belongings and advise you on how to handle them in the future so that your personal archiving process is as efficient and reliable as possible? Perhaps you can put them on retainer so that every six months or so, they can archive whatever has accumulated since their last visit. It sounds like a worthwhile service to me (as a potential customer), as well as something that could be a fun and interesting job (as a recently-graduated MLIS with an interest in archives).

The Personal Digital Archiving 2011 Conference was held in February 2011 at the Internet Archive. INFOdocket has posted a link to videos of the presentations at the conference; that post also links to other PDA2011 content on INFOdocket. Also, The Conference Circuit blog has summaries of the talks at the conference (since it’s a blog, they’re in reverse order); this links to the ‘Personal Archiving, 2011’ category on the blog.

Going back a bit further in time, the Library of Congress held a Personal Archiving Day on May 10, 2010. Videos from that event are now available on the web as well. Once again, INFOdocket provides an overview post with links.


Archival materials, copyright, and teaching history

Micalee Sullivan has written an interesting post on the blog for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.

Sullivan, who is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Michigan State University, wanted to take digital photographs of letters held at Arizona State University’s Archives and Special Collections and post them on a website as materials for her class. As she says in her blog post:

“Allowing students to view high res photos of the actual documents gives them the opportunity to struggle with interpreting the faded, spotty, and outdated handwriting just as a historian would and can be much more interesting to view than just transcribed material on a word document.”

However, the copyright for those letters was not retained by ASU and they therefore cannot give permission to reproduce the letters on a public website, even if they have been reproduced for educational purposes.

Sullivan’s post does a good job of listing the various ins and outs of the copyright advice she received from various sources. The post also highlights the potential pitfalls of using archival materials as a teaching aid (not to mention the restrictions archivists face when they make decisions about access to and use of their holdings).

The thing that really resonated with me was Sullivan’s interest in using the original documents (or facsimiles thereof) in her teaching. Quoting again:

“As a historian, maybe it’s naïve of me to think that history can be exciting to most people. But when your only experience with the subject has been confined to textbooks and lectures, it would be difficult to find the thrill of it all. Digital technology provides teachers with the tools to make history more than lectures and textbooks. When students are given a variety of historical materials they can form their own opinions about certain time periods and events, rather than just taking notes on them. While distance may seperate [sic] students from the actual artifacts of history, digital archives can provide a close substitute. Hopefully the legalities won’t get in the way.”

Maybe I’m naive too, but I believe history can be exciting, possibly even to “most people.” Just look at the interest in genealogy, which essentially is a way of using research about your family’s ancestry as a way of learning about history. Sure, some genealogists never get beyond “name-collecting,” but others find their interest expanding to include the larger history of a location, or of a time period. The interest is there. The question is how (or if) historians, archivists, amateur history geeks, genealogists, and other interested parties can work together to support the cause.

H/T @ndiipp via @EinAtlanta and @archivesnext

Bruce Sterling and the archivists

What happens when the archivists visit a living cyberpunk SF author and start carting his papers away. There are many good lines in this story, but this is the one that sticks with me:

Scholars won’t find any digital artifacts—no hard drives or floppy disks, for instance, in the material he’s given the Ransom Center so far. “I did not have any electronic documents to give them. Not even one,” he says. “I’ve never believed in the stability of electronic archives, so I really haven’t committed to that stuff.”

“There are forms of media which are just inherently unstable, and the attempt to stabilize them is like the attempt to go out and stabilize the corkboard at the laundromat,” he adds. “You can get into big trouble that way.”

Those who tout digital permanence, he says, “need to go talk to the archivists.”

H/T Boing Boing.