Thursday, December 08, 2005

All I got is a photograph...

But all I got is a photograph,
And I realise you're not coming back anymore.”
from the song, “Photograph,” by Richard Starkey and George Harrison

I just returned from an OCLC Distinguished Seminar Series presentation by Cathy Marshall (Microsoft) entitled “A Personal Digital Dark Ages: Assessing the Fate of Our Digital Belongings.” Cathy has an easy-going presentation style, and the content was a very approachable mix of the fruits of professional inquiry and her own experiences with her personal archive.

Some highlights of her talk:
• The popular impression that modern life yields significant quantities of personal digital stuff is accurate. Many of us accumulate material in a sort of endless storage room fashion – pile it in, sort it out later. But we generally do a poor job of sorting it out later...
• Digital stores are different from physical ones in many ways – for example with respect to the “geography” of the store (we may remember the grey box on the top shelf has family photos – on our computer we don’t usually get a comparable experience).
• Personal strategies for coping with one’s digital attic and even interest in having access to one’s digital history vary widely by what it is and whose it is. Some people are content to keep a few items and let the rest get lost, trashed, or otherwise pass into oblivion. Others really want to keep everything, but most have vague strategies at best for archiving; strategies which are rarely systematically acted upon (e.g., We know we can burn our documents to CD, but we either don’t, or don’t do it systematically).
• The plethora of platforms, systems, applications, email accounts, etc. most of us use definitely contributes to the problem – from format obsolescence to forgotten passwords and many more issues. With shared computers, loaned PDAs and cast-offs of old equipment, it’s easy to have our digital store in many hands, many places. The net result for most people is a poorly managed and highly vulnerable personal archive.
• Even if you manage to store your content on single machine/server/etc., finding, retrieving, sorting, labeling, and otherwise usefully managing the content is a burden that various desktop tools like Google Desktop address only partially at best.

A great take-away for me was the term, “re-encountering,” that flash of memories experience one has when re-encountering a forgotten keepsake. Cathy’s point was that we typically loose the serendipity of these memory re-encounters we tend to experience with physical archives when we search a digital store – with a digital file, it’s possible to deep search for a desired item; in a physical archive, we usually have to browse through “irrelevant” materials during our search.

Cathy cited Terry Kuny’s “A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information” among the resources she’s found valuable on the topic. It’s definitely a worthwhile read.

And with that, here’s the close of one more piece of digital content to be put at risk. Hmm...maybe I should print this out and put it in the blue box at the back of my closet...

(BTW: I’m delighted to be a guest blogger on It’s All Good. I’ve been a regular reader from the start, and have even been tapped now and again to do some presentations on the OCLC Environmental Scan. So I follow my heroes, Alice, Alane, George, once more into the breach!)

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