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Personal Archives

Over then last several months our exploration of the digital afterlife has pulled me back to my roots as an information scientist. Information what? Information scientist—people who study information, people and technology. Kind of like a librarian of the digital age. This week I’ll present a talk at the Internet Archive during Personal Digital Archiving 2011 called “Personal Digital Archives and the Death Transition.”

Personal digital archives are the shoe boxes, file folders and cabinets of the digital age. They’re more than a content repository. They’re a gestalt—a rich reflection of the curator’s identity.

The information architect in me wants to talk about how they should be organized and how we can better educate individuals in the care of their collections. But the bigger question, at least in my mind, is how can we design these archives for identity preservation?

Several studies on passing possessions on before death indicate that it’s done as an act of identity preservation. If you’ve ever been given a family memento, you have probably experienced this. I bet grandma said something like, “this is your grandfather’s watch that he wore for 30 years.” She may have gone on to say something like, “I remember that he looked at this watch constantly while we were in the waiting room when you were born.” Now this is more than a watch. It’s an object imbued with meaning. It has the ability to remind you of your grandparents and is thus an object of identity preservation.

That begs the question: how can we imbue digital objects with meaning? How can we design personal archives so that a lifetime of digital content can be accessible and meaningful to future generations?

I wish I had the answer. But in a later post I’ll provide my thoughts on the goals we should adopt for designing personal digital archives to meet this challenge.

Photo by dolescum on Flickr.

    One Response to Personal Archives

    1. Bill LeFurgy February 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      “How do we imbue digital archives with meaning?” Great question.

      I recently digitized my family’s 35mm slide collection, put them on CDs and sent everyone a copy. All good, except that now we don’t go through our periodic ritual of projecting them in the dark with everyone watching together. Well, we could, but 1) why would we when we can see them any time we want individually, and 2) does it make sense to pull the original slides out of their archival sleeves, put them back in those horrible carousels and fire up the unwieldy projector?

      But there was something about the physicality of the originals, along with the effort it took to show them, along with the group experience in viewing them that made those slides special to me from childhood. My family now has tons of digital photos that we sometimes share on Facebook and Flickr, which is great. But the pictures are so easy to post and to view that they just don’t seem as “special” as the slides once did. Plus–let’s face it–the fact that digital photos consist of intangible electrons rather than nice solid atoms imparts an oddly tenuous quality to them.

      Recently my family has been doing more photo sharing and commenting via Facebook, which for me kindles some of the sense I had during the old slide shows. Maybe the family that posts together, emotes together? Perhaps people should be encouraged to maximize the interactive aspect of online life as well as invited to curate and preserve their digital memories. Perhaps it’s possible to wrap all of this in a unified process somehow.

      The topic needs more thought, definitely. I’ll be at the Personal Archiving conference–look forward to seeing you there.

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