All UK local archives hold collections of ‘personal papers’ – diaries, correspondence, working papers and notes scribbled by dignitaries and officials, local people ‘made good’, and even the average person-in-the-street can provide a rich seam of historical content for social history. For many local authority archive services, personal digital archives – perhaps a few floppy disks or CDs in amongst a bigger deposit – will be the first kind of digital content they will encounter, the foundation of a future digital archives programme.
In 2007, the British Library in partnership with University College London and the University of Bristol launched the Digital Lives Project to study personal digital archives. The project conference, held on 9-11 February, aimed to examine how libraries and archives can offer support and advice to individuals who wish to organise, preserve and transfer their personal digital archives.
The highlights for me of the two days I attended included two presentations from Emory University. Naomi Nelson described Emory’s born-digital personal records programme as “trying to work the problem at both ends: building the collection and developing new ways of providing access.” This is a relatively unusual approach for the preservation community, which tends to think about preservation first, and access only second. I was particularly interested in her ideas for facilitating social networking amongst researchers, capturing researcher annotations, or by using tags or GIS analysis. The presentation struck a chord with me, as I’ve been looking at some similar ideas with the aim of promoting greater exploitation and use of catalogue records of our traditional collections at WYAS. But, as Naomi pointed out, in the digital realm, it is possible to capture and share research access in ways previously not imaginable.
The second Emory presentation from Erika Farr concerned the processing of Salman Rushdie’s literary papers, which included an early Macintosh desktop, 3 laptops and an external hard drive. I was particularly interested in the overlaps of content between successive generations of Rushdie’s computer hardware, and how the archivists at Emory had approached the resulting archival appraisal issues. There are similarities here with the MLA Yorkshire archives we have accessioned at WYAS, where the last server operated by the organisation contained duplicate records inherited from previous systems and from former members of staff. Also some useful ideas for providing basic access in the reading room via a network port disabled laptop.
Further case studies were presented by John Blythe, on digital ingest at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, using a processor tool from Duke University – and their aspirations for more integrated workflow in the future. And Gabriella Redwine from the Harry Ransom Center, on the processing, arrangement and description of the Michael Joyce papers.
I also enjoyed the panel discussion on the potential monetary value (or lack of it) of digital personal papers – do records survive because they are valued? Or is value related to scarcity, in which case endlessly replicable digital materials might be largely value-less? Annamaria Carusi’s philosophical paper on value in the digital economy drew out the relationship between value and trust. She suggested that since all new technologies (for example, the printing press) are disruptive of our normal practice, we should look to learn lessons from the gradual acceptance of other new technologies into society.
The Digital Lives Project research has revealed some insights into personal digital information management, with the hope of helping repositories guide future depositors into good information management practices. However, like the Harry Ransom Center, we have found the response to pro-active guidance to be limited, and I felt some of the ‘educating users’ suggestions from members of the Digital Lives team to be somewhat unrealistic, at least for the kinds of local personalities likely to deposit their personal records with a local authority record office. I am interested in the potential for technological ‘memory aids’, like the Self-Archiving Legacy Toolkit from Stanford University, and for forensic discovery of linked digital content, but suspect (hope?) on a local level, there is likely to be continuing need for retrospective detective work on description by archivists.