Monday, 10 August 2009

Forgetting to remember

After a Sunday Times article prompted yesterday's piece of whimsy, a Tweet from my standard Twitter search ( (digital OR data) AND (preservation OR curation), since you ask) produced an interesting article by Chris O'Brien, a columnist for "Time to clean up your digital closet". He goes quite nicely through the various ways in which our personal digital content is more at risk than we might think (media degradation, device and format obsolescence, and the sheer anonymity of large quantities of digital stuff). But he has a prescription for dealing with some of it, part of which I reproduce here (I hope fair use covers this, since you'll have to go to the original to read the rest!):
"However, all is not lost. There are some strategies for storing your digital archives. But you'll have to do a lot of work. You will need to start thinking like a librarian and become an active curator of your files. That means relentlessly organizing, labeling and tagging, backing up and deleting.

The first and most important thing to do is to begin deleting files. Whittle things down to the essentials. What do you really want to maintain and pass along? You must be ruthless and vigilant.

Next, develop a system for organizing files online and offline. If you're going to store stuff on removable media, like DVDs, place them in cases that have extensive labels, and index them. And don't store files like text documents or photos on propriety formats that are not widely adopted. Experts recommend photos in JPG forms and documents in PDF formats or basic text formats.

Label every file and tag them with as much information as you can. Being obsessive now will pay off in the long run. This is a lot of work, which is why you want to cull your archives as much as possible.

Once that's done, make multiple copies. You can also explore "cloud" backup services..."
Thinking like a librarian? Being an active curator of your files? Sounds like a good place to start. Interesting that he sees deleting as being an important part of remembering! We probably need better tools for the average person for a lot of this (eg tagging files in a filestore), but I suspect there's enough around for any reasonably competent researcher to use. However, laziness, forgetfulness and sheer pressure of work are our enemies here. Will we forget to do the things needed to remember?


  1. There seems to have been a bit of a media interest on this topic in the past few weeks. It can be difficult to archive our owmn material, complicated and time consuming and unless we have lost something vital with no immediate rewards. I'm reminded of the excellent 'Eleven top tips for preserving your personal data' created by the Paradigm Project at Oh and BTW, I think it's archivist we need to be emulating, not librarian!

  2. Yes, that Paradigm Project stuff is really good advice, although "Design a simple backup routine" is MUCH easier said than done, and I would worry quite a lot about "Use passwords or encryption devices to protect data on laptops and removable media" unless you're serious about "[Use] a password safe to collate data about all your passwords and encryption keys"!

    You're right about substituting archivist for librarian, I think, except that few in the public have any real idea what archivists do!


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