Notes from Personal Digital Archiving 2017

The following post was originally written for the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy “In Case You Missed It” series, which can be found here.

At the end of March I traveled to Palo Alto to attend Personal Digital Archiving, hosted this year by Stanford University Libraries. This was my second time attending PDA (my first being last year, held at the University of Michigan) and my first time presenting at the conference. Over the course of two full days of presentations and one half-day of hands-on workshops and museum tours, professional archivists and dedicated amateurs alike approached personal digital archives from a range of perspectives, some familiar, and others entirely new to me. From a logistical standpoint, the single-track symposium format removes concerns about choosing one session over another, and well-placed breaks throughout the day allow pauses for reflection and conversation. In a day of densely-packed panels, pacing is particularly important, and moments for pause were especially appreciated.

As someone who specifically studies personal digital archives, attending PDA when possible has become something of a no-brainer for me. However, the range of ways in which presenters interpreted personal digital archives make this a conference that I think information professionals focused on other areas would also find relevant, both to their work and their own acts of personal record creation and preservation. The first day’s keynote speaker, Gary Wolf, raised questions about the long-term preservation of quantified self data, while the second keynote, delivered by Kim Christen, explored the personal archives of indigenous groups using the Mukurtu platform. Questions of sustainability, ownership, and access were common threads throughout each of these seemingly different talks, and these questions set the tone for many of the presentations that followed each day.

A number of this year’s presentations explored different approaches archivists have taken to working with and learning from donors and communities of practice; for example, accepting the born-digital materials of a composer, documenting the careers of dancers, or working with individual collectors of video games to inform archival best practices. Others (including my own) identified some of the challenges and opportunities related to preserving quantified self or lifelogging data, and how such data may fit in with the rest of our personal digital archives. Others still investigated the archival functions of specific formats, such as screenshots or animated GIFs from GeoCities websites.

I was particularly excited to hear from staff from the Salman Rushdie digital archive at Emory University on their experience moving from a high-profile discrete project to a comprehensive born-digital archives program. I had not previously been familiar with Jennifer Douglas’s work on intimate archives and online communities centered around grief, but was deeply moved by her presentation. A panel on PDA and social justice, grounded in the work of Copwatch and citizen documentation gave me a great deal to think about, and felt truly timely, as did a presentation on collecting documentation of student activism on college campuses.

The presentations closed with a retrospective panel, featuring Cathy Marshall, Mike Ashenfelder, Howard Besser, Clifford Lynch, and Jeff Ubois. Their discussion touched on the history of PDA and the buckets that presentations could generally be placed in – including outreach and activism, documentation strategies, community history, lifelogging, digital humanities, and storytelling. They noted that for many attendees, personal archives are not necessarily their professional responsibilities, but instead often a passion project. They concluded with a conversation about how PDA can be more accessible and inclusive in the future, and it occurred to me that that commitment to inclusivity is one of the aspects of PDA that I have most appreciated so far in my acquaintance with this conference.

At the risk of over-editorializing, or relying on cliché, the personal is absolutely political, and for many, it may feel more so now than ever. I appreciated the experience of being in an environment in which a breadth of perspectives related to the acts of creating or preserving personal records could be discussed. As individuals, we can engage with records (or own or others’) in diverse and deeply personal ways. The PDA conference and community provides a supportive space in which those myriad ways can be investigated alongside one another. While I don’t yet know the details of next year’s conference, it’s one that I encourage archivists (and others) to keep an eye out for and attend, if possible.

For a deeper dive into conference content, I highly recommend looking through the session descriptions and author bios on the conference schedule, as well as reading through the #PDA2017 hashtag on Twitter.