Stanford Hosts Pivotal Session of Personal Digital Archiving Conference

By Mike Ashenfelder


In March, Stanford University Libraries hosted Personal Digital Archiving 2017, a conference about preservation and access of digital stuff for individuals and for aggregations of individuals. Presenters included librarians, data scientists, academics, data hobbyists, researchers, humanitarian citizens and more. PDA 2017 differed from previous PDA conferences though, when an honest, intense discussion erupted about race, privilege and bias.

Topics did not fall into neat categories. Some people collected data, some processed it, some managed it, some analyzed it. But often the presenters’ interests overlapped. Here are just some of the presentations, grouped by loosely related themes.

  • Joan Jeffri’s (Research Center for Arts & Culture/The Actors Fund) project archives the legacy of older performing artists. Jessica Moran (National Library of New Zealand) talked about the digital archives of a contemporary New Zealand composer and Shu-Wen Lin (NYU) talked about archiving an artist’s software-based installation.
  • In separate projects, Andrea Prichett (Berkeley Copwatch), Stacy Wood and Robin Margolis (UCLA), and Ina Kelleher (UC Berkeley) talked about citizens tracking the actions of police officers and holding the police accountable.
  • Stace Maples (Stanford) helped digitize 500,000+ consecutive photos of buildings along Sunset Strip. Pete Schreiner (North Carolina State University) archived the debris from a van that three bands shared for ten years. Schreiner said, “(The van) accrued the detritus of low-budget road life.”
  • Adam Lefloic Lebel (University of Montreal) talked about archiving video games and Eric Kaltman (UC Santa Cruz) talked about the game-research tool, GISST.
  • Robert Douglas Ferguson (McGill) examined personal financial information management among young adults. Chelsea Gunn (University of Pittsburgh) talked about the personal data that service providers collect from their users.
  • Rachel Foss (The British Library) talked about users of born-digital archives. Dorothy Waugh and Elizabeth Russey Roke (Emory) talked about how digital archiving have evolved since Emory acquired the Salman Rushdie collection.
  • Jean-Yves Le Meur (CERN) called for a non-profit international collaboration to archive personal data, “…so that individuals would know they have deposited stuff in a place where they know it is safe for the long term.”
  • Sarah Slade (State Library Victoria) talked about Born Digital 2016, an Australasian public-outreach program. Natalie Milbrodt (Queens Public Library) talked about helping her community archive personal artifacts and oral histories. Russell Martin (DC Public Library) talked about helping the DC community digitize their audio, video, photos and documents. And Jasmyn Castro (Smithsonian African American History Museum) talked about digitizing AV stuff for the general public.
  • Melody Condron (University of Houston) reviewed tools for handling and archiving social media and Wendy Hagenmaier (Georgia Tech) introduced several custom-built resources for preservation and emulation.
  • Sudheendra Hangal and Abhilasha Kumar (Ashoka University) talked about using personal email as a tool to research memory. And Stanford University Libraries demonstrated their ePADD software for appraisal, ingest, processing, discovery and delivery of email archives. Stanford also hosted a hackathon.
  • Carly Dearborn (Purdue), talked about data analysis and management for researchers. Leisa Gibbons (Kent State) analyzed interactions between YouTube and its users. and Nancy Van House (UC Berkeley) and Smiljana Antonijevic Ubois (Penn State) talked about digital scholarly workflow. Gary Wolf (Quantified Self) talked about himself.

Some presentations addressed cultural sensitivity and awareness. Barbara Jenkins (University of Oregon) discussed a collaborative digital project in Afghanistan. Kim Christen (Washington State) demonstrated Mukurtu, built with indigenous communities, and Traditional Knowledge Labels, a metadata tool for adding local cultural protocols. Katrina Vandeven (University of Denver) talked about a transformative insight she had during a Women’s March project, where she suddenly became aware of the bias and “privileged understanding” she brought to it.

The conference ended with observations from a group of panelists who have been involved with the PDA conferences since the beginning: Cathy Marshall, Howard Besser (New York University), Jeff Ubois (MacArthur Foundation), Cliff Lynch (Coalition for Networked Information) and me.

Marshall said, “I still think there’s a long-term tendency toward benign neglect, unless you’re a librarian, in which case you tend to take better care of your stuff than other people do.” She added that cloud services have improved to the point where people can trust online backup. Marshall said, “Besides, it’s much more fun to create new stuff than to be the steward of your own of your own mess.”

Lynch agreed about automated backup. “There used to be a view that catastrophic data loss was part of life and you’d just lose your stuff and start over,” Lynch said. “It was cleansing and terrifying at the same time.” He said the possibility of data loss is still real but less urgent.

Marshall spoke of backing the same stuff up again and again, and how it’s “all over the place.”

Besser described a conversation he had with his sister that they carried out over voicemail, WhatsApp, text and email. “All this is one conversation,” Besser said. “And it’s all over the place.” Lynch predicted that the challenge of organizing digital things is “…going to shift as we see more and more…automatic correlation of things.”

Ubois said, “I think emulation has been proven as something that we can trust.” He also indicated the “cognitive diversity” around the room. He said, “Many of the best talks at PDA over the years have been by persistent fanatics who had something and they were going to grab it and make it available.”

Besser said, “Things that we were talking about…years ago, that were far out ideas, have entered popular discourse…One example is what happens to your digital stuff when you die…Now we have laws in some states about it…and the social media have stepped up somewhat.”

I noted that the first PDA conference included presentations about personal medical records and about genealogy, but those two areas haven’t been covered since. Lynch made a similar statement about how genealogy “…richly deserves a bit more exploration.” I also noted that the general public still needs expert information about digitizing and digital preservation, and we see more examples of university and public librarians taking the initiative to help their communities with PDA.

In a Q&A session, Charles Ransom (University of Michigan), raised the bias issue again when he said, “I was wondering…how privilege plays a part in all of this. Look at the audience and it’s clear that it does,” referring to the overwhelmingly white audience.

Besser said that NYU reaches out to activist, ethnic and neighborhood communities. “Most of us (at this conference) …work with disenfranchised communities,” said Besser. “It doesn’t bring people here to this meeting…but it does mean that at least some of those voices are being heard through outreach.” Besser said that when NYU hosted PDA 2015, they worked toward diversity. “We still had a pretty white audience,” Besser said. “But…it’s more than just who gets the call for proposal…It’s a big society problem that is not really easy to solve and we all have to really work on it.”

I said it was a challenge for PDA conference organizers to reach a wide, diverse audience just through the host institution’s social media tools and a few newsgroups.  When asked what the racial mix was at the PDA 2016 conference (which University of Michigan hosted), Ransom said it was about the same as this conference. He said, “I specifically reached out to presenters that I knew and the pushback I got from them was ‘We don’t have a budget to go to Ann Arbor for four days and pay for hotel and travel and registration fees.’ “

Audience members suggested having the PDA host invite more local community organizations, so travel and lodging won’t matter, and possibly waiving fees. The University of Houston will host PDA 2018; Melody Condron said UH has a close relationship with Houston community organizations and she will explore ways to involve them in the conference.

Lynch, whose continuous conference travels afford him a global technological perspective, said of the PDA 2017 conference, “I’m really encouraged, particularly by the way we seem to be moving the deeper and harder problems into focus…We’re just now starting to understand the contours of the digital environment.”

The conference videos are available online at https://archive.org/details/pda2017.

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