Birders and Personal Archiving

Personal archiving is getting increasing attention from the archives community. Archivists have historically been professionals responsible for selecting, arranging, and preserving materials deemed to be important enough to keep for the long term. Now, with the explosion of personal information that has been enabled by technology such as personal computers, digital cameras, and the internet, many people who never would have given a thought to archives are wrestling with the challenge of managing their digital “stuff” for the long term. At the same time, trained archivists are caught between the rock of limited resources and the hard place of the rapidly increasing quantity of information.

Given these trends, it seems likely that individuals will be increasingly responsible for ensuring the preservation and archiving of information they want to keep and pass on to future generations. For their part, professionals have begun to focus on providing tools and knowledge to amateurs who want to take on this work but don’t know where to start. For example, the Library of Congress’s (LOC) digital preservation blog The Signal frequently includes posts about personal archiving; LOC also has a site offering guidance on the subject. These sorts of resources are sure to increase as personal archiving gets more attention from both professionals and amateurs. After all, if this year’s SXSW conference had a panel called Digital Immortals, can more widespread awareness of personal archiving be far behind?

What does this mean if you’re a birder? Well, many birders keep a cumulative list, as well as taking some sort of notes about their field trips. Many post messages to e-mail lists or on discussion sites. Bird photography has become much more popular due to the ease of using digital cameras. Some birders write blogs or use Twitter. Then there’s the correspondence between birding friends that doesn’t take place in the public context of an e-mail list. Text alerts about rarities…

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Birders are very good at creating lots of information. Little of that information is going to survive, however, if birders don’t start thinking about the “stuff” they create (both digital and hard copy) as part of being a birder. Because birding is a hobby for most people who practice it, the information created by it has historically not been valued outside of the birding community. How many field notebooks and photos have been thrown out after a birder has died? Could that happen to your field notes after you head off to that big migrant trap in the sky? Would it bother you if those notes and memories of days in the field were lost because no one cared about them after you were gone? If having your birding legacy tossed into the trash would bother you, you need to start thinking now about what you want to save and how you can make sure it survives you.

This week is Preservation Week. As a result, there are many events (both online and offline) being held. There’s information out there for everybody from the beginner who’s wondering how to get started to the person looking for practical help on a specific technique. The Signal has a good overview post here with links to information about preserving both digital and nondigital resources.

How am I celebrating Preservation Week? I’m organizing my digital photography in a way that makes more sense than iPhoto’s default organization method. Photos of things I’ve sold on eBay will not make it into the “keep this after I’m gone” folder, but my moth photos will. I’ve been mothing in earnest since 2006 (when I got my digital camera) and most of my moth field notes are photographs. I want my moth documentation to survive me, because it may be useful to researchers yet to be born. Organizing those photos also helps me to get my data into a format that I can submit to Moth Photographers Guide for inclusion in their online range maps (which is another way of making my stuff useful to others).

So, if you’re a birder, give some thought to what you have and how (or if) you want it to last. If you’ve already started doing that, good for you! Happy Preservation Week to all.

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.