I had the pleasure of attending the recent Personal Digital Archiving conference, held this year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from May 12 to May 14. As I was considering a venue to present on a project that I’ve been involved with, the IMLS-funded Learning from Artists’ Archives program at UNC, PDA 2016 seemed like a great fit. I wanted to talk about how the artists’ archives project has helped artists to create and sustain their own personal archives, specifically through a series of workshops where local North Carolina artists have been able to gain necessary skills for tackling both analog and digital archiving projects. As the focus of the artists’ archives project has been to help artists with archiving at the personal level, the PDA conference seemed to me a fantastic opportunity to both share the successes and challenges of our project, as well as to learn about other exciting personal archiving efforts taking place across the country.
As I dug in for the first day, looking over the program of sessions, I quickly realized that the PDA conference is unique in many ways. The conference brought together an eclectic mix of information professionals from a variety of institutions, academics and graduate students with diverse research interests, businesses and tech companies developing digital archiving tools, and (perhaps most importantly) individuals and community organizations hard at work sustaining vital archiving projects. Despite the broad mix of participants, the total number of attendees was not overwhelming, filling a single, smallish lecture hall. Between sessions and during breaks, participants engaged in friendly dialogue, quick to spark a conversation with a presenter to learn more about their research or project. This congenial atmosphere pervaded the conference, generating a collaborative environment with professionals, academics, developers, and citizen archivists alike exchanging ideas and learning from each others’ experiences.
Slides and audio recording for all of the presentations will be made available soon on the conference website—and I highly recommend looking through all of that material when it’s posted—so for now I’ll limit myself to highlighting a few a my favorite presentations.
One of the two keynote speakers, Gabriela Redwine of the Beinecke Library at Yale University, gave an important talk on the decisions that institutions make when taking in personal digital archives from donors. As digital materials make up an increasingly significant portion of an individual’s papers, how do institutions handle these materials in ways that simultaneously honor the donor’s privacy and legacy while still providing sufficient access to researchers? Redwine resisted any kind of one-size-fits all framework for institutional handling of personal digital archives, and instead stressed the personal aspect of these materials: every personal digital collection has an individual at its core, who has a distinct outlook and set of opinions regarding the long-term management of his or her digital collection.
Redwine remarked that one donor surprised her by shrugging off concerns for his digital privacy, wanting to make everything open to archival researchers. In another example, she discussed her struggles to forensically scan a multi-lingual collection for sensitive information. The upshot is that personal digital collections pose a number of challenges to collecting institutions, all of which we are still grappling with as a profession. To meet these challenges, we will have to maintain dialogue with donors of digital materials, stay flexible and creative in our approaches, and keep our ideas about personal digital archives open to change. Individuals and institutions alike are still coming to terms with the role of digital materials in the broader documentary universe and decisions for processing, appraising, preserving, and providing access to these materials will need to adapt to these shifting cultural values.
I was also impressed by the number of exciting collaborations taking place between archival institutions and local communities. One particularly inspiring initiative is the Queens Memory Project, a collaboration between the Queens Library and Queens College to empower residents of Queens, NY to document, share, and preserve their memories of this dynamic borough. In this multi-faceted project, Queens Library has staged a number of community digitization efforts, setting up mobile labs throughout Queens where residents can digitize old photographs and other documents. The digitized materials are given back to the participants, who also have the opportunity to donate these materials to the growing Queens Memory collection. Through this post-custodial approach, the project strives to document the history of Queens, but only buy-in from the community. Queens Library and Queens College are not acting as powers from above, but working directly with residents to make sure their histories are documented on their terms—and also for their benefit. In a very exciting update on this project, the presenters Natalie Milbrodt and Maggie Schreiner reported that they are in the process of developing an app that would allow individuals to actively collect and submit videos, sounds, and photographs of Queens through their mobile phones.
Archiving social media was also a pressing concern at the conference. In addition to the technological challenges of capturing and preserving the often dynamic content on social media sites, Robin Margolis of UCLA discussed a critical social issue that information professionals also need to consider: the ways in which social media platforms reinforce normative definitions for gender. Margolis presented on research he has done into how Facebook, specifically, makes it difficult for transgender and Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) individuals to represent their identities on this social networking service. Margolis gave the example of his sister, who had recently transitioned from male to female; although Margolis’ sister was able to change her name on her Facebook account, she still appeared as a “brother” in Margolis’ network. Margolis discussed Facebook’s philosophical and economic incentives for its rigid policing of users’ identities, and also argued for the role that information professionals have in navigating these complex issues. Social media of all kinds are a growing part of our digital lives (and thus archives), but these platforms are decidedly not value-neutral. Understanding the social values baked into these platforms will certainly inform both personal and institutional archival decisions in years and decades ahead.
Overall, the PDA 2016 conference was thought provoking, as presenters raised some of the most urgent issues in the field of digital archives, and tackled these issues with innovative ideas and strategies. As I stressed before, the conference offered a fruitful mix of perspectives from both research and practice. The challenges facing the field of digital archiving require both of these perspectives and PDA 2016 was an ideal event for a diverse set of individuals to come together and build the foundation for just that exchange of ideas.