Teaching Personal Digital Archiving through Community Digitization

By Maggie Schreiner

This is the third post in the BloggERS series on Collaborating Beyond the Archival Profession

Queens Memory is an outreach-based community archiving program of the Queens Library and Queens College, CUNY that collects and makes accessible oral histories, photographs, and other personal records documenting contemporary life in the borough of Queens in New York City. Queens Memory hosts public scanning events where community members can have their photographs, documents and memorabilia digitized and added to the Queens Memory digital collections. Participants leave the events with both their original material and a flash drive of digital surrogates created during the event. The flash drive is the most tangible outcome of their participation in Queens Memory. However, many of donors do not have the necessary digital literacy skills for the flash drive to be a meaningful takeaway from the event. In fact, some donors do not know what a flash drive is, or how to connect it to a computer.

Queens Memory community digitization event in Forest Hills.
Queens Memory community digitization event in Forest Hills.

It was apparent that Queens Memory needed to incorporate digital literacy education, and personal digital archiving (PDA) was a natural fit for the community scanning events. Over the course of several months in 2015-2016, the Queens Memory team developed several teaching tools, iterating from a simple handout, to a brochure, then a two-hour digitization training.


“What’s on My Thumb Drive?” Handout

The first tool Queens Memory developed to integrate PDA education into the community scanning events was a simple handout explaining what files are on the flash drives that donors receive. The Queens Memory team provides donors with both TIFF and JPEG versions of each digital surrogate they create. The small handout, given with the flash drive, explains what types of files are on the flash drive, and suggests how each file type is best used. Although this information is very simple, it gives participants a starting place for understanding the digital material on their flash drives, and potentially also on their home computers.

Small handout explaining contents of Queens Memory thumb drive.
Small handout explaining contents of Queens Memory thumb drive.

“Preserving Your Digital Memories” Brochure

Building on this simple handout, Queens Memory staff created a brochure to give participants a more comprehensive resource to learn how to care for both the digital surrogates created during the community scanning events, as well as any digital files donors may already have. The brochure attempted to balance accessibility with robust information and professional standards. In creating the text for the brochure, unnecessary technical language was avoided, and in retrospect, accessible language could have been emphasized even more.

The brochure begins with an overview of the types of digital content that people might have, and how that material is uniquely fragile. The main threats to the longevity of digital material are outlined, including format obsolescence and the failure of computers and hard drives. The brochure then introduces the idea that digital content requires care, and provides a step-by-step guide for digital archiving.

Centerfold of Queens Memory Personal Digital Archiving brochure.
Centerfold of Queens Memory Personal Digital Archiving brochure.


Digitization Training Sessions

Another way that Queens Memory shares this information with community members is through more in-depth digitization trainings. The trainings focus on the digitization process and workflow, and include technical explanations of resolution, bit-depth, color space, compression and file format. Although Queens Memory provides a list of technical standards that are both professional and responsive to the reality of the situation and resources available, it is also very important for participants to learn how and why to choose particular standards and settings. When community members learn about the technology behind the process of digitization, they are empowered to make their own decisions about best practices as well as apply this knowledge to other scenarios. Additionally, this portion of the training proved to be a great opportunity to talk about the historical value of the collections, and how others might interact with these materials in the future.

Breezy Point Historical Society at a digitization training with Queens Memory.
Breezy Point Historical Society at a digitization training with Queens Memory.

The PDA teaching tools employed by Queens Memory at community scanning events and digitization trainings extend the reach of the program’s community archiving focus. As the historical record becomes increasingly born-digital, it is imperative that Queens Memory donors gain the skills and knowledge to become stewards of the digital content that documents life in the borough of Queens, NY.

This post is an edited version of a book chapter originally written with Natalie Milbrodt. Read the full chapter “Digitizing Memories and Teaching Digital Literacy in Queens, NY” in The Complete Guide to Personal Digital Archiving, edited by Brianna Marshall.

Headshot of Maggie Schreiner

Maggie Schreiner is a Project Archivist at New York University. Previously, she was the Outreach Coordinator for Queens Memory and member of the Culture in Transit team. She holds an MA in Archives and Public History from New York University.


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