The history of you and me

November 21st, 2018 By Valerie Love

Computers have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While I kept bound journals and diaries as well, I wrote short stories and kept a Doogie Howser-style journal on the family computer all through my teens.

The author (pictured centre) at a Macintosh computer in her primary school. Photographer unknown.
The author (pictured centre) at a Macintosh computer in her primary school. Photographer unknown.

When I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2011, I brought over a box of journals I’d kept from age 16 onward. These diaries covered the major and minor events in my life – experiences at school, a year living abroad in Italy, tales of friendships and crushes, and the heartache of first love lost. I also had shoeboxes full of letters, and photographs and negative strips from my adventures backpacking across Europe, which I had painstakingly mounted into album after album.

While those physical items are still around, my electronic musings from those days are long gone. The email accounts I kept in my early 20s were lost when I graduated from the schools that had issued them, or automatically deleted due to inactivity after I switched over to newer, trendier platforms. I no longer have access to any of the content I once put on Friendster and MySpace and Geocities.

Which means that over a decade of my digital life is just gone. And I can’t go back in time and recover the materials I created on the computer in that photo above.

Some may argue that these types of digital materials are ephemeral, and only had meaning and use at the time they were created, rather than having long-term value. But, these materials are important to me. Just like the hard-bound journals and photo albums, the digital files I create tell stories of my life, and provide connections to my family and friends. These are moments I want to remember.

Preserving digital content means being proactive

The digital material that we all create on a personal level matters at a macro level as well. Because this is how people lived and communicated at the turn of the 21st century. And at that scale, what we’re talking about is the basis of society’s memory. And how we communicate and the technology we use is changing faster than ever before. The material that we create right now is what becomes the archives of the future – but only if someone makes the effort to preserve it.

What we decide to start saving now, and who is making those decisions is important, because what we start saving now will be the building blocks of what is available to collect in the future. Not everything we create needs to be saved, but if we don’t begin managing our personal digital archives now, there is less chance they’ll still be around in the future.

Additionally, just because content is online, doesn’t mean that it is preserved. Platforms for online content can change policies, or go out of business entirely. Storify, a tool to curate social media posts, closed down in May 2018 and deleted all posts. Flickr recently announced that as of 5 February 2019, free user accounts will be limited to the most recent 1,000 photographs or videos, and anything over that amount will be deleted unless the user has upgraded to Flickr Pro by 8 January. This is an important reminder to manage your personal digital archives to ensure that you continue to have access to the digital materials that are important to you and your whānau.

What do we mean by ‘personal digital archives’?

Gabriela Redwine, digital archivist at Yale University, defines personal digital archives as “the digital stuff we create and save every day”.

Most of the digital content created today is what’s known as born-digital – that is, material like this blog post that started life as a digital object, and has never had an analogue counterpart.

Digital archives can be things like the photographs on your phone, and social media accounts like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It could be instant messages and texts from friends and family. It may also be websites you create, or word processing files, or spreadsheets, or content you’ve saved to the cloud.

Examples of personal digital archives content, including Twitter feed, photos and Facebook.
Examples of personal digital archives content.

The term ‘personal digital archiving’ refers to how individuals manage and keep track of their digital files, including where they store them, and how these files are organised.

Both the Library of Congress, and closer to home, the National and State Libraries of Australia break down personal digital archiving into four core steps:

  1. Identify
  2. Select
  3. Organise
  4. Save

Step 1: Identify what you have

There is no real strategy for this one except to dedicate some time to looking at the digital content you have. To manage your digital content over time, you need to first understand what you have and where your digital files are currently located.

So, what types of materials do you have? Documents? Photos? Video recordings? Digital music files? Do you have writings or digital research materials? Or materials for websites and blogs that you’ve created?

And what apps and sites do you use, or have content on? Do you have a Facebook or What’s App group just for sharing family news? Do you have a Flickr account, or use Google Photos or Instagram? Do you have important documents as email attachments?

And then, once you know what you have, you can begin to prioritise. You don’t need to include everything in your digital archiving plan, but maybe the top five that you really care about. For example, your priorities might be your digital photographs, your Facebook account, your research files, video interviews of your family, and your poetry and drafts. Maybe it’s more than that, maybe it’s less.

It can also be useful to look at what file formats they are. Are they Microsoft Word documents or PDF files? Are your photographs JPEGs or Tiffs? Do you have files that require a certain piece of software to open? Depending on how common the software is, can you be reasonably sure that you’ll be able to read these files in the near future? Or if not, can you export them to another format that’s more common?

Once you’ve identified the what, it’s time to look at the where.

Where are you digital files located? Photograph by Mark Beatty.
Where are your digital files located? Photograph by Mark Beatty.

Where is your digital content stored currently? Is it online? Or as files on your laptop or tablet? Your old computer? On floppy disks or CDs? Your phone? External hard drive or USBs?

Identifying where your digital content is stored and what you have is key to better digital management.

Step 2: Select what’s important to keep

Once you’ve identified what material you have and where it is, the next step is to choose what to keep.

The fact that there is just so much digital content out there is one of the challenges of maintaining personal digital archives over time. In addition to the content that we actively create, the more mundane administrative aspects of our lives are increasingly becoming digital as well.

Each time I pay my cell phone bill, I get a text message receipt that tells me to “please retain for your records.” There’s so much digital content out there that it can sometimes feel like we’re drowning in data. And there is a tension between the amount of digital content that we create – or that is created for us – and what we as individuals can sustainably manage over time.

There is also an environmental cost to all of the digital content that we create. It is estimated that by 2025, the communications industry could use 20 per cent of the world’s electricity. We have a responsibility to remember that digital material has a physical impact on the world, and to manage our own digital footprints accordingly.

Furthermore, the more digital content you have, the harder it is to manage over time. You shouldn’t keep absolutely everything just because it exists. Selecting allows you to consider what digital materials have value to you, and what you will want to still have access to in the future, and helps you to prioritise those materials. Don’t be afraid to hit that delete key if you have digital files you don’t need!

How many photos from your tramping trip do you need? All of them? Or just some? Photos by Valerie Love.
How many photos from your tramping trip do you need? All of them? Or just some? Photos by Valerie Love

There are two key questions to help with selection when looking at your digital content:

What do I NEED to keep?

What do I WANT to keep?

Some of your digital files have practical, legal, or financial significance and need to be kept. One question to ask yourself is what do you need to keep short term vs long term?

It can also be helpful to think about what kinds of materials are important to you. What items do you feel a sentimental attachment to? What files will be important to others (in your family, to your friends)?

On my previous laptop, I had over 16,000 digital photographs, which were taking up heaps of storage, and making my old computer even slower. When I got a new laptop last year, I made a conscious decision that I would keep only a fraction of those photographs.

So I thought about the reasons I take photographs – which is mainly so I will remember and have a record of particular moments in my life. And that made it much easier to follow Marie Kondo’s advice on minimalism and decide to only keep the photographs that spark joy, and cull the rest down. This makes it much easier to manage my photographs over time.

Step 3 - Organise

Once you have made your selection, you can start thinking about organising. Do you have your photos or music or documents spread out over multiple computers or hard drives or CDs? It can help to consolidate similar items and bring them all together into one place to ease searching and management.

You don’t have to consolidate everything into one place – but just remember that it’s easy to lose track of files and which version is the most current if they’re scattered across dozens of CDs, five hard drives, two computers, and your Google Drive account, for example.

Once you have everything together, ask yourself: what’s the most useful way to arrange everything (by event, by date, by project) and what sort of information is necessary to understand this arrangement? We recommend creating a simple word or text file as a kind of treasure map for your digital archives that explains how you’ve arranged your files. Your method of arranging may make sense to you while you’re arranging, but you may also want future you, or family or archivists in the future to be able interpret your methods as well.

There are a few general rules when creating folder and file names.

  1. Keep your folder and file names simple and concise. Don’t choose names that are overly long or complicated. Windows devices have a 255 character limit for file paths, so short but also meaningful is the goal. Avoid names like, ‘Untitled1’ or ‘Random stuff’ if you can help it.
  2. Avoid double spaces and punctuation and special characters in file names. (? ! “” : ; . , & $ % # +). Be aware that macrons in file names can be difficult for some software and computer systems to render properly.
  3. Use hyphens and underscores to separate words and subjects in file names (e.g.: 2018-Trips_US). You can use blank spaces in file names but they are literally gaps in the bitstream, and are less stable over time. We advise using underscores or hyphens instead of blank spaces.

Step 4 - Save your digital content

To protect your important digital content, you need multiple copies in multiple locations. We recommend following the 3-2-1 rule – three copies of a file, stored in at least two locations, one of which is not your house.

And this isn’t as complicated as it sounds. It could just be the files on your laptop or computer, a backup copy on a portable hard drive, and maybe cloud storage like Dropbox or Google drive. This way you’re not relying on one system. You might also want to send a USB stick or hard drive with important materials to a family member to keep at their house.

If you have files that are important that you don’t want to lose, make sure to back them up. And check regularly to see whether the media can still be read, and that the files can still be opened. With constant changes to software and hardware technology, it’s important to think about the software and hardware you will need for your files over time. Do you still have a program that can read that format? You may need to convert older files to a newer format to keep them accessible over time. Do you still have a computer with a CD drive? CD-ROMs are not considered suitable as a long-term preservation carrier, so you may need to transfer materials off of CD-ROMs onto a hard drive or upload to the cloud. And remember that the cloud isn’t really a cloud – files in the cloud are still saved to physical digital storage somewhere else. And if all of your important files are just in the cloud, they won’t be accessible if there’s a major internet outage, so having a local copy on your laptop can be a good thing.

The important thing is to not be daunted by your digital files. The great thing about personal digital archiving is that you can start right where you are. Maybe set up a Saturday for you and your family or friends to get together and identify the files you have and what’s important to you to keep over time, and what isn’t. If your social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are important to you, set a calendar appointment for yourself to download the archives for accounts twice a year or so, to have as a backup. And if you have a Flickr account, now is a good time to download your archive as well.

While most digital content will be managed over time by the individuals or organisations that create it, the Alexander Turnbull Library actively collects unpublished digital content that fits within our collections policy and collecting plans. Feel free to contact the Library for more information.

Special thanks to Flora Feltham, Jessica Moran, and Leigh Rosin for their contributions to this post.


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21 November 2018 7:50pm

Oh thank you! I have been almost drowning in digitizing our family records. You make it as simple as 1 2 3 4. I can now work forward with confidence as well as organisation.