Book Review: Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Book Review: Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage. Ed. Donald T. Hawkins. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2013. 320 p. $49.50 softcover (ISBN 978-1-57387-480-9).

In the very first paragraph of chapter 1, Jeff Ubois of the MacArthur Foundation presents for us the overlying objective of this book, a genuine compendium of approaches to understanding and dealing with our digital selves: “By helping to build a common understanding of personal archives, this book supports collaboration between diverse types of institutions and individuals working in different disciplines” (1). This is key, because it seems to me that many of us have been looking at the problems associated with organizing and maintaining long-term access to all that we create and record and share, and that we are still trying to define what the “personal digital archives” is. But for the sake of so many—ourselves as individuals, our families and future generations, the research community, and the collective memory of what builds every nation—the need to protect the digital legacy is an imperative, starting now, and starting with this book.

I say this, after carefully reading through thirteen essays crafted by sixteen experts in this new area of research, because I feel as if I finished with a good sense of current personal digital archiving issues, and with a desire to become part of the solution. The editor does a nice job of keeping the essays at a level that is mostly comprehensible to a broader audience (notably free of a lot of jargon, I might add). We are only beginning to grasp the complexity and challenges on many fronts, including bringing together and organizing all that stuff stored in disparate locations (held, for example, on the PC [including email and commercially downloaded content such as music and books] and on our various devices, online, with third parties, and on social media platforms); understanding the legal ramifications of digital inheritance, privacy, and copyrights; figuring out ways to fully access this digital treasure trove ten, twenty, even one hundred years from now; and how to protect against loss. While only a few chapters seem to address the individual directly, the book as a whole speaks volumes to the information profession, first about the importance of outreach to inform our communities (public, academic, or otherwise), then with possible technical solutions, but mostly by challenging us to think big about information from a cultural standpoint, including information behaviors.

Ubois defines personal digital archives as “collections of digital material created, collected, and curated by individuals rather than institutions” (5). Extending from this, Danielle Conklin, author of chapter 2, “Personal Archiving for Individuals and Families” does a terrific job of outlining risks, such as obsolescence of the formats and software, the need to migrate information forward, the importance of keeping your collections organized, and distributing copies to assist preservation efforts. In chapter 3 Mike Ashenfelder outlines ways that the Library of Congress (LC) is working to raise awareness and promote best practices for managing digital family collections through a range of venues, especially through the public libraries. The expansive efforts coming out of LC are an important part of many nationwide efforts, and partnerships, aiming to reach out to the general public to help preserve family collections. Evan Carroll’s essay “Digital Inheritance: Tackling the Legal and Practical Issues” reminds us of the value of our digital assets and offers straightforward advice on how to protect them when we die, for example, listing all your accounts with attendant usernames and passwords (safely stored, of course!).

The book’s editor, Donald T. Hawkins, introduces us to a number of products and services developed to help manage personal digital archives, particularly photographs, in chapter 4. It is encouraging to find out that the commercial sector recognizes the need for personal-level solutions; some applications reside on the user’s PC and others are third-party services. Several authors remind readers about the importance of backup, noting that most people do not; even I’m guilty on this note. I enjoyed reading about the various features and functionalities, even knowing full well that by the time I actually get around to test-driving these options they may not be there: things change so quickly.

Continuing on in terms of technology solutions, chapter 12, titled “New Horizons in Personal Archiving: 1 Second Everyday, myKive, and MUSE” by Hawkins, Christopher J. Prom, and Peter Chan, is short but promising in terms of real technologies being developed to deal with email (MUSE stands for Memories Using Email), or how to push or pull information to/from all the various places where digital data reside (myKive is a pilot being developed at the University of Illinois Library). Email is problematic for many of us, and while thoughtful on the subject, the chapter by Jason Zalinger et. al titled “Reading Ben Shneiderman’s Email: Identifying Narrative Elements in Email Archives” seemed less than practicable, but I appreciated their ideas on “narrative search techniques.” The importance of the memory institution and its relationship to the individual in bringing that valued content into a protected environment for future scholars is also a theme that runs comfortably through Hawkins’ book. The chapter titled “Faculty Members as Archivists: Personal Archiving Practices in the Academic Environment” by Ellysa Stern Cahoy relates to many communities on many levels. These include scholars as individuals, our librarians as mentors, our colleges and universities as memory institutions, and future researchers. She argues about a need to change our institutional repositories (IR) from something static to a more active platform, for example, by capturing “versioning” and other pieces of the scholarly workflow.

Chapter 10 was out of place in terms of the book’s objectives. Author Aaron Ximm, in “Active Personal Archiving and the Internet Archive,” states quite explicitly, right up front, that the Internet Archive is not actually doing anything in terms of personal archiving. However, their altruism and work to preserve digital content on other fronts (outlined in some detail) is certainly highly respected and appreciated, and this is a good overview of their work as a whole. Richard Banks goes on in “Our Technology Heritage” in chapter 11 about devices that could, if ever fully developed, bring our digital lives into our physical lives (he values the idea of displaying our digital images, for example, in our homes), but right now little boxes that sit around and salvage and store information don’t seem exactly visionary. Hollywood has given us many examples of a future where the walls are literally alive with computer-generated/digital living (examples like Avatar and the Hunger Games series come to mind). I wonder if preservation and access to personal digital archives could ever be exciting enough for a Tom Cruise sequel to Mission: Impossible.

The articles by Catherine C. Marshall (“Social Media, Personal Data, and Reusing Our Digital Legacy”), Sarah Kim (“Landscape of Personal Digital Archiving Activities and Research”), and the final chapter by Clifford Lynch (“The Future of Personal Digital Archiving: Defining the Research Agendas”) do the most in terms of making you think, really think, about what we’re up against in terms of understanding the digital environment. Lynch’s further discussion about how the private becomes public is especially thought provoking, and his further remarks on legacy planning are worth noting. This is a book well worth reading, every chapter, even if they are all a bit different in terms of how they consider personal digital archiving. Somewhere you will find your own role in this, you’ll think of that role in context, and it will all be very exciting.—Karen E. K. Brown (, University Libraries, University at Albany, SUNY


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