Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Donald T. Hawkins

Some experiments on digitizing boxes of archival materials received at the Internet Archive ( revealed a cost of approximately 25 cents per page, or rather $

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Commercial services such as GeoCities, Apple MobileMe, Yahoo! Video, Google Video, and many other sites have vanished from the online world, and only snapshots in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine ( provide ongoing read-only access.

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methods are being developed that would collect our digital legacy from websites and services.

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The works of yesterday’s eminent individuals are rapidly being digitized, and there is a growing expectation that all of humanity’s creative works are or will be instantly accessible in digital form.

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personal digital archives are collections of digital material created, collected, and curated by individuals rather than institutions.

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What’s needed are “pay once/store forever” services. These are not yet widely available, though a few universities now offer them to faculty. This pricing model seems likely to become more common, in part because agencies that fund scientific research and cultural production are requiring their grantees to provide a plan to preserve project data.

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while personal digital archives may be something we use while we are living, much of their value (or promise) is in their ability to allow communication with our descendants.

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With a “pay once/store forever” cost model, individuals might be able endow a terabyte, rather like the more common “buy a brick” programs museums and others have used for years. Universities might also provide a terabyte with tuition and thus tie their alumni into the university in a much deeper way.

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New interfaces that include better timelines, maps, social network diagrams, automatic indexing, and data extraction technologies for face, voice, and handwriting recognition are other examples of technologies that will probably be developed for other markets but will also be useful to personal archivists.

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library patrons and staff members alike are able to find what they are looking for in a collection and locate similar materials using the catalog, and they can even visit other repositories that follow the same standards and continue their search without facing a learning curve.

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“Digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents,” Paul-Choudhury contends. “If you don’t copy them regularly, they simply disappear.”7

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Under the U.S. copyright statute, 17 U.S.C. Section 105, copyright protection is not available in the United States for any work of the U.S. Government. Therefore, this chapter is in the public domain.

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Select the nicest ones, the ones worth keeping, and delete the rest. Does anyone really need 50 photos of clouds or 200 photos of autumn leaves? Blurry, unrecognizable photos? Delete them. Homework from 10 years ago? Delete it. Be decisive and thorough. Whittle the mass of photos down to the best, the “keepers.” Toss out document drafts. Clear the clutter.

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Most institutions replicate their digital collections in a separate geographic location far away from the source collection. In the event of a disaster, the distant, replicated collection will be safe, intact, and accessible, backed up on tape or spinning disk drives.

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personal files should be backed up in separate locations on at least two different types of storage devices.

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“3 - 2 - 1 rule”: Make 3 copies. Save at least 2 onto different types of storage media. Save 1 in a different location from where you live.

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move your collection to a new storage device every 5–7 years.

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It is important to let a loved one know where important documents reside and supply them with URLs and passwords,

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the Library created a personal digital archiving section on the website and populated it with instructional videos, downloadable brochures, and topic-oriented pages. We wrote about how to archive the most common digital possessions:

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Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell at Microsoft Research are the authors of Total Recall, a fascinating book published in 2009,1 in which they discuss various ways that all of the information we come into contact with can be captured and retrieved, either by the original owner or long after the owner’s life ends.

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Gemmell posts a very useful list of businesses offering software to support “life-logging” on his blog (

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“Companies are good at building new technologies for recording and for metadata extraction, but they are not trustworthy long-term custodians…. Preservation needs to evolve in tandem with recording.”

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the first photograph showing a living person is a street scene taken in Paris in 1838.

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Smith developed Lifemap, which uses the Amazon web service (AWS) for storing and managing users’ memories, and designed a user-friendly graphical user interface.

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Fortunately, Google also makes a copy on tape that is stored offline, so it was eventually able to restore the lost accounts

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Project MUSE (Memories USing Email; is a research project at Stanford University’s Mobile and Social (MobiSocial) Computing Research Group that is studying the analysis of long-term email archives.

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(Those who wish to contribute their movies to the Internet Archive should read the conditions and procedures at

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email as a “master key” to the decedent’s accounts.

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Yahoo! refuses to allow anyone access to a Yahoo! email account, even in event of the account holder’s death.

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designers and researchers such as Richard Banks are presently developing interfaces that will allow future generations to more naturally interact with the large amount of digital information that individuals will likely leave behind in the future

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it helps to think about personal archives as something live, as resources, as material we (and others) might draw on in both the near future and long-term. In other words, personal archives (and archives in general) will become sources for future creative efforts. Reuse is an important motivation for maintaining a personal archive.

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it helps to think about personal archives as something live, as resources, as material we (and others) might draw on in both the near future and long-term. In other words, personal archives (and archives in general) will become sources for future creative efforts. Reuse is an important motivation for maintaining a personal archive.

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CrystalChat, used a 3D-representational model of personal instant messenger history to “reveal the patterns and to support self-exploration of one’s personal chat history.”13

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Physical things take up space, of course, and, as we described earlier, that fact can encourage us to make decisions about where each belongs, even if that means they no longer belong with us and have to be discarded. The use of space can reflect something about an object’s meaning in our lives. Arranging items in a public space in our home, putting things on display, raises some items above others.

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One feature we enabled with the Timecard device was the ability to add reference material. Using Wikipedia, the author of the timeline can search for contextual material (details about world events, for example) to add as a complement to the more personal content. On my grandfather’s timeline, I added references to events he may have been involved in, such as the Battle of Britain (a famous skirmish involving the Royal Air Force), so I had a sense of broader occurrences that may have affected his life directly.

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