By Jaime Mears
I am a National Digital Stewardship Resident whose project will end in 49 days. The following post is a reconsideration of my work, an exercise in gazing unflinchingly at the decisions made to establish a personal archiving campaign at the DC Public Library and the implications of compromising in public.
My National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) project, “Digital Preservation Access and Education Through the Public Library,” aims to make digital preservation approachable to the general public in the wild frontier of personal archiving. NDSR was established by the Library of Congress and Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop “the next generation of stewards to collect, manage, preserve, and make accessible our digital assets,” recognizing that project-based, hands-on experience is a valuable prerequisite for a professional future in digital preservation. In the past 10 months I’ve created classes and resources, planned and hosted events, trained library staff, and launched a DIY digitization lab called the Memory Lab in the hope of swinging the power dynamic of preservation back to the creators. In retrospect, the strategy for this project has come down to a fundamental question: how do I balance back-of-the-house best practices and procedures with front-of-the-house realities to get people archiving effectively today?
The fact is, people are not doing a very good job of managing, much less preserving, their files—even when it comes to precious and unique artifacts such as home movies and photographs. The literature shows that in general we do not think about preservation, and when we do, we associate it with physical rather than digital objects.1 We place our most valued digital archives such as photographs in cloud platforms that we assume will preserve them.2 Many of our memories are on at-risk magnetic media, and we are just as likely to lose a file from neglect as from a natural disaster.3
The solutions to these challenges seem straightforward: cultural heritage institutions that provide public access to their holdings need to raise awareness in the commercial and public sectors, educate their users on personal archiving best practices, and create or connect them to affordable solutions for digital preservation (some already have).4 But success in these efforts lies in the ability to distill the necessary from the ideal, and to present best practices in an accessible way to an audience with varying technical skills, assets, and motives.
The act of compromising is not new for digital preservation professionals. Whether due to lack of resources or sheer scale of material to preserve, archivists make compromises each day to do what they can. But my revelation during this residency has been that the stakes are even higher when working with the public and the compromises even weightier, because they are being made on behalf of the user. In the lesson plan for a program, in the design meeting for a resource, in the procurement order for a transfer station, and in all of these public-facing aids a series of biased selections happen. What happens if they’re the wrong ones?
To create our digitization lab, I visited professional labs in archives and spoke with a/v specialists. Though I have an education in and experience with digital preservation, I didn’t have any a/v experience, so it was easy to evaluate these sites from the perspective of a novice. Some of my selection decisions were easy, such as the decision not to include reel-to-reel transfers because of how precarious and technically difficult they are to operate, or to exclude from the workflow a waveform vector monitor (a machine that measures the luminance and chrominance of a video signal) because of its usability and relevance to a public that is mostly interested in access.
Some decisions were harder, such as which best practices to focus on in staff training and in public programming. Some examples include emphasizing that creating an inventory to establish intellectual control over a distributed personal archive is more important than deleting files and giving more class time to understanding good vs. bad storage environments (external hard drive: good! Facebook: bad!) than the differences between types of drives. And although the established practice is have three storage locations for a file, I simplified my message to recommend two as a less overwhelming and more achievable practice for the public.
To ease the troubling thought that some of these decisions may be in error, I have made documentation a priority. Through guest posts such as this one, a personal blog, libguide, Trello boards, notes, presentations, video recordings, and a final report, I have created what I hope is a comprehensive archive for DCPL staff to consult after my fellowship has ended.
While documentation is time-consuming but fairly easy, measuring the impact of these compromises is difficult. Our programs and the Lab have been well-attended and booked, and qualitative feedback from patrons has been positive. Some of the resources and documentation from this project have been used by other public library systems, and we are beginning to see inquiries roll in about building digitization labs. I am very pleased that this project is helping to empower patrons and librarians, but at this point I’m not sure how to measure the project’s success with personal archiving. How can we measure preservation actions a single patron takes for years to come? How can we collect data and safeguard patron privacy? Will the proof lie in personal digital archives of any kind making it to our Special Collections?
As a young professional, I also wonder if this dance of compromises gets any easier.
Jaime Mears is a 2015 National Digital Stewardship Resident at DC Public Libraries. She received her MLS from the University of Maryland’s iSchool and has worked at archives and libraries in the DC area since 2012.
1. Cushing, A. 2015. IT’s Personal: Collecting, Preserving, and Using Personal Digital Archive. Digital Preservation Coalition 28 April 2015.