ATG Newschannel Original: Memory in the Internet Age. Part 3: When Archiving Gets Personal—Personal Digital Archiving

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

This is part 3 of a 3 part series.  Here are links to Part 1 & Part 2.

ATG veteran blogger Don Hawkins has edited a well-reviewed book on personal archiving, Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage (Information Today, ISBN 978-1-57387-480-9) which was one of the first books to provide both practical information and, more importantly, insights from Brewster Kahle, Clifford Lynch, and others. How did he come to this topic? “I attended the second and third Personal Digital Archiving (PDA) conferences in 2011 and 2012 which were held at the headquarters of the Internet Archive in San Francisco and came away with the impression that a book on the subject would be very appropriate. Personal archiving is very long-standing, but what makes PDA different and revolutionary is the term digital. The well-known advantages of digital technology, such as easy preservation, organization, copying, etc., have made PDA highly appropriate for individuals.”

Arjun Sabharwal, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Toledo believes that “digital technology has intensified the interest in family history especially since many inquiries happen on an international scale due to histories related to migration, trafficking (including slavery), and other personal/family issues where names had to be changed to conceal identities. To unravel this, you need a lot of data that is now becoming possible via the Internet.”

“Interoperability (the data and metadata standards allowing computer networks to share data) has enabled researchers to search across multiple databases using Google, but some are proprietary and you may only see just enough in Google results to get you interested in a subscription to products like Ancestry.com, which is what connects you with important data,” Sabharwal adds. “I have seen families posting family genealogy using MyHeritage (free to some extent) and other open source software—I myself have done that. The amazing discovery was that the system alerted me about similar relationships posted in a different family tree published by someone else. This can help you fill the void in your data while complementing others’ family tree. Websites like CousinConnect also help in making connections throughout the Internet.”

Marie Lascu, a founding member of Activist Archivists and author of the Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video sees this movement as something that helps to empower people, provide richness and new perspectives to history and to our contemporary world. Lascu is the audiovisual archivist at Crowing Rooster Arts, a small non-profit dedicated to documenting Haitian culture and art. This year she won the Society of American Archivists Spotlight Award for her work which noted that “despite limited resources and staff in her role at Crowing Rooster Arts, a non-profit organization documenting the stories of Haiti’s struggle for democracy since 1980, Lascu has implemented infrastructure to digitize the organization’s physical media with the help of a wide network of like-minded professionals and open skill-sharing.” Lascu and her co-authors created a guide for a whole new type of audience: human rights activist, a small or grassroots human rights organization, media collective or others who “are creating or collecting digital video to document human rights abuses or issues, and; you want to make sure that the video documentation you have created or collected can be used for advocacy, as evidence, for education or historical memory—not just now but into the future.”

Building Community & A Richer Understanding of Our Pastgenalogical-tree-sourceloc-gov

In 2007, Nick Barratt introduced an ambitious new historical website, History Today, to support “the rise of family history…. It is no longer enough simply to ‘collect names’ and build a family tree; though this is a vital step, it is now an interim one. Instead, the real quest is to find out about the way our ancestors lived, and consequently a range of other disciplines are being pursued. House history is enjoying a new lease of life, as we search for ancestral homes noted in census returns or certificates; social history is all the rage as we seek background information on occupations and working conditions from the nineteenth century; local history is also an important part of the picture, since we need to be able to imagine the community in which our relatives grew up.”

Andrea Copeland, Chair of the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University has co-edited the 2017 book, Participatory Heritage (Facet, ISBN 9781783301232) on this subject believes that personal archiving has emerged due to “the power of digital technology and the ease of content creation and sharing brought about by that technology. I see artists, musicians, and genealogists participating in heritage and memory making outside of formal heritage institutions. Building community around robust collections completely outside of formal institutions. This trend will go a long way to creating a more inclusive historical record. However, without links to formal heritage institutions I worry about scalability, capacity building, and long-term access. I hope this trend evolves to include methods for partnering with heritage institutions to build capacity within these community-based efforts and to broaden the scope of the collections held by these institutions.”

Creating A Digital Support Structure

Copeland describes both the needs and potential solutions: “Currently, there is not a digital infrastructure of support for interested individuals and community groups to tap into. Public libraries have a long tradition of developing local heritage collections including genealogy. For a variety of reasons, public libraries have not transitioned to capturing local heritage that is born digital (not digitized). For example, when a community event would occur, the public library would clip articles from the local paper and put them into a vertical file. There is no born digital vertical file. Clay Shirky provides a great example of this in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Penguin books, 2009, ISBN 0143114948). He writes about the annual Mermaid Festival in Brooklyn, New York and that until Flickr there were no vertical file or collection documenting this significant community event because the documentation was mostly born digital. People shared their photographs of the event and overnight a local heritage born digital collection was created and shared on global scale. Great, right? Yes and no. Yes, because this is a powerful tool for creating community and participating in heritage. No, because Flickr has no commitment to the public good and therefore no commitment to long-term access in the way that a public library would.”

old-family-pic-sourceloc-gov

For now,” Copeland continues, “my solution to this problem would be a third party entity, a center or organization of some sort, that would help individuals and community groups preserve their past and their present with the future in mind. Such a center could facilitate connections to libraries and other memory institutions (if desired), technology resources, and professional expertise. As the world becomes more and more entrenched in technology, it’s going to be even more important that culture heritage be preserved in a proactive manner to ensure lasting access for future generations. Social media is not the answer and a USB drive full of photos isn’t either. Yet the average individual and community group have only these resources along with the sales associate at Best Buy to help them organize and preserve their personal and community histories. By creating a center that would serve as a conduit to a preservation infrastructure (to include libraries, resources, and expertise) for personal and community heritage, a more inclusive and holistic social history could be captured which would promote the development of social memories that reflect all members of society not just scholars, diplomats, what about ‘celebrities’ and corporate entities.”

Privacy, A Right To Be Forgotten & The Future

Andrea Copeland

Andrea Copeland

Hawkins believes we have crossed into a new environment—with no option to return to the past where privacy was assumed. “We have known for centuries how to pass physical property from one generation to another, but many lawyers do not know much about how to pass digital property. Evan Carroll’s book Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? (New Riders Press, 2010; ISBN: 978-0321732286) is a good review of this area.”

Copeland sees little help for those who’d prefer to remain anonymous in this digital world. “Our personal information has a social life of its own. We traded privacy for convenience. It’s gone but having said that, I suspect legal and ethical battles will be waged to win back at least how this data that is so easily collected about all of us can be used. For example, the European Union’s data protection laws include the right to be forgotten. This right is intended to provide individuals with the means of controlling their digital footprint as it relates to global access to information that could cause lifelong damage. This of course is an affront to those who prioritize freedom of expression and access to information over an individual’s privacy.”

Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, provides what Copeland calls “a brilliant exploration of this tension. If you have nothing to hide, then why do you need privacy? And if we can do away with privacy, then aren’t we all much better off—safer, healthier, and wealthier? The book is powerful in its ability to raise awareness of the dangers of the trade we’ve made via technology—however it leaves you feeling like the Circle has already closed around us and there is no escaping. Nothing we can do.”

Arjun Sabharwal

Arjun Sabharwal

“If the privacy of family is sacrosanct, my suggestion is that people first consult their family (before uploading potentially damaging data),” Sabharwal cautions, “because they never know what wounds open up when publishing information that would be best private in the strictest sense. Genealogical data can be a double-edged sword in other words. I was once naïve in trying to connect families between the old country and the U.S. (on the request of a party from the former). Before giving some privacy information over I did contact the family in the U.S. in which a member recalled some history of a feud a generation ago. I did not give the person from the old country the contact information after that but gave the latter the contact information of the person inquiring and let them pick it up from there.”

Getting Started

Hawkins notes that we can all get started on protecting our own digital assets by using “the photographer’s “1-2-3 Rule”: Make at least 3 copies; Put them on at least 2 types of media; Store at least 1 copy in a secure remote location (like a safe deposit box). It’s also important to be aware that technology changes rapidly, and some types of media may disappear (like floppy disks, etc.). Periodically check that the copies are still accessible by opening them at intervals (such as every 5 years or so).”

Rhonda L. Clark co-authored the book Fostering Family History Services: A Guide for Librarians, Archivists and Volunteers (Libraries Unlimited, 2016,ISBN 978-1-61069-541-1) with Nicole Wedemeyer Miller, which provides some solid advice for people considering their own personal archive. Clark tells ATG that “when starting to consider how to create a personal archive, it is important to pick out special items that you can easily scan and share to give a sense of accomplishment and joy… The digital world has breathed new life into old video and audio formats, by making them much more usable. You can search through them more quickly and take segments from them. Scanning allows us to share our photos, letters, and documents easily. If you do get your home movies, DVDs, or VHS tapes digitized, please don’t throw away the originals. They are likely in a more stable format than the newer ones and you may need to redo that process again down the road to a newer format. It is always better to go back to the original format, if possible, to create a newer version, rather than migrate from one to another.”

“There are many, many great free sites out there, such as Family Search and Internet Archive,” Clark continues, “which provide wonderful genealogical and historical resources. While proprietary databases can provide massive amounts of information, there are many folks who cannot access them, so efforts like Digital Public Library of America can provide streamlined access to a large variety of resources of interest to genealogists, such as newspapers and city directories. But, of course, Ancestry and other subscription databases are very good for locating collections easily and getting started with genealogy, plus they do actually offer a lot of free resources if you look at the site carefully. For those who are serious genealogists and family historians, the annual fees on these sites are likely worth the money, since they may save a few costly trips to various sites.”

Archiving, Libraries & The Future

“Traditional archives house institutional, governmental, and organizational records, as well as family and other manuscript collections,” Clark explains. “Library local special collections likewise have the predictable city directories, newspapers, census reports, but also family papers and photographs. But archives and libraries also have long collected on the narrative of families, communities, events, ideals. Some specialized community archives also have emerged to represent the histories and lives of those who may not have been considered in traditional collections. And we are seeing individuals connecting with the collections of traditional archives and libraries in the course of their family history research. Institutions are responding to the needs of family historians by creating more programming and potential for interaction. In the chapter of our book on digital portals, I wrote about ways that widespread digitization efforts in local libraries, historical societies, and archives are providing tons of new resources for family history enthusiasts. Some of the digital collections allow for the user to input information that might be useful to others.”

“This is a great departure from the traditional notion of the librarian/archivist as the ‘authority’ on the collection,” Clark continues. “Of course, it has always been known that the patron is very knowledgeable about his/her own family, but the ability to interact with resources and put in tags or phrases is a great start to what eventually may be a more collaborative approach to collections. Also the whole movement of “crowd sourcing” provides the patron the ability to work on family history collections from his or her own computer. Projects, such as the 1940 census indexing project through Family Search, allowed everyday people to go in and help to type in the transcripts of that census.  This mindset really shows a shift in the notion of project ownership and it highlights another reality that many institutions are facing—the decline of onsite volunteers. Through crowdsourcing, complicated online projects can be done by a large number of people. This gives the family historian a real sense of involvement.”

“There is sufficient technology to preserve and curate genealogical data, Sabharwal believes. Social media, digital repository, discovery layers, linked data, and digital forensic tools can provide most in terms of support for preserving genealogical data in digital format; the question remains—how accessible will they be a decade from now? If people fail in personal digital archiving (and leave their files in one platform or device) they may realize that some older file format may no longer be supported—thus, inaccessible). Simply saving the files (in proprietary formats) is not enough; they would have to be converted into some open standard. Like XML.”

Gabriela Redwine

Gabriela Redwine, Yale University Digital Archivist, authored the Digital Preservation Coalition report on Personal Digital Archiving, released in December 2015. This excellent guide concluded with the observation that “the possible uses for a digital archive are as varied as the individuals who create personal files. For many people, a personal digital archive will be a living thing—a body of files that is constantly being added to, revised, used and reorganized for personal purposes. Other people assemble a digital archive with the goal of passing it along to another caretaker or transferring it to an institution or community archives. A digital archive can be actively used, or it can be stored away and never accessed. Still other individuals assemble personal files for their own private use and intend to securely destroy them without ever sharing. The afterlife of digital files when the creator dies raises questions about what level of documentation is necessary to know someone’s wishes. What can be done with a digital archive is not always the same as what should be done with it.”

One good example of this conflict of interests is the case of one of the DNA testing companies (both Ancestry.com and 23andme are examples of this) and the privacy of the results of these tests. Recently the Stanford University Daily reported on the case of federal authorities requesting DNA test results from the company. In a 2014 case, a man “wrongly accused of being a suspect in the unsolved murder” in 1996 was requested. Because the man’s name was in a ‘protected section of the database,’ the company refused to comply without a court order. The authorities were able to deduce the man’s identity from Facebook searching and he was required to submit a semen test—which showed that this suspect could not be the assailant.

The 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act “protects individuals from genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment,” yet there is no protection from insurance companies, or most other agencies or government. The Stanford article ends with this caution: “Ultimately, deciding whether or not one should quench their thirst about where they come from using services such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com is a personal decision. However, it is important to ask questions about the motives and consequences of companies that use electronic databases to store acquired DNA information.”

Personal digital archiving is more than a fad or a trend, but an extension of the efforts that information professionals have worked to develop for centuries. At the same time, this is all happening in a time of transition, with unimagined opportunities and ethical dilemmas. As digital archiving becomes personal, information professionals are drawn into yet another complicated web of possibilities and problems.

Nancy K. Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.  herther@umn.edu

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