Public Library Activism: Jon Eriksen’s Personal Digital Archiving Campaign

I’m sure these types of classes will become standard at every library at some point. – Jon Eriksen

Public libraries are becoming the front lines in the spread of digital literacy. This is evident in the calls for action contained in the Institute of Museum and Library Science’s “Building Digital Communities” guide and in the increasing volume of topics about “digitization” and “digital libraries” at ALA conferences.

“Digital literacy” in the context of public libraries refers mainly to empowering people to use computers and the Internet in order to improve their quality of life and job prospects.

But another aspect to digital literacy that is slowly gaining ground is understanding how easy it is to lose access to digital possessions and how that loss can be prevented. Some inspired public library staff are teaching personal digital archiving to their communities. These librarians realize that personal digital archiving is of crucial value to everyone in their community and they are stepping up and doing something about it.

Jon Eriksen is one of those inspired volunteers. Eriksen is a technology and reference librarian at the The New Canaan Public Library and since the fall of 2012 he has been organizing personal digital archiving events in public libraries in and around New Canaan, Connecticut. I contacted Eriksen and asked him about his outreach work.

What motivated you to organize these presentations?

When I was working on the research for my master’s thesis, which used a personal information management perspective to look at artists’ uses of their personal collections, I got interested in personal digital archives and collections.

When I would talk to people about my thesis I ended up having all of these great conversations about keeping digital materials organized, safe and accessible. It became clear to me that anyone with a PC or a digital camera struggles with these issues to some degree.

I think I was interested in a particular duality – the data that we keep is personal, both in the sense that what we save reflects what we care about, and also because how we organize and care for our materials says a good deal about our preferences and priorities.

At about that time, I first came across the Library of Congress Digital Preservation website and read about personal digital archiving events. I thought that these events seemed like a great way to highlight the issues I was interested in and since I’d already spoken with so many people I felt certain that there would be an interest in the community – and I thought it could be a very fun class to teach. We had a great response in our community to the first couple of classes we offered and that motivated me to offer it to other libraries as a part of our outreach program.

I really felt like my library supported the effort and I think that was crucial to our success. For the first event, we designed and printed postcards and flyers, and we really put effort into marketing it on our website and newsletter. That initial effort paid off by drumming up interest and from the start our events were well attended.

You originally gave a two-hour presentation but cut your subsequent presentations to about an hour. Why?

When I did the presentation for the first time I covered a lot of ground but felt like it was too long and in-depth for one sitting. I thought it would make more sense to view the personal digital archiving class as a foundation for other courses and we could offer separate in-depth technical classes on scanning, e-mail archiving and other topics.

I think that this structure works better since it allows, in the first course, more focus on the mapping and planning piece of creating an archive, using the four-step strategy promoted by the Library of Congress – identify, select, organize, and save. I think that the four-step strategy has been really useful, both because it gives a good overview of a project and because it breaks down the whole endeavor into separate and manageable tasks, and that makes it easy to talk about the hurdles you might meet at each step.

When I don’t try to cover both theory and technique I can also leave a lot of room for questions during the presentation and that can be important when the audience has varied archival materials and varying degrees of digital literacy.

What Library of Congress resources have you found most helpful to you and the general public?

When I was preparing for my first presentation, I consulted all of the Library’s material in the personal archiving section. I found that the step-by-step guides, in particular, provided a good framework for the class and made it easier for me to organize all of my materials and talking points. Now, I also list the personal archiving page as the recommended resource for patrons when they need more information or get stuck, and I still use the digital formats website when I feel like I want more specific information on formats.

Having such a unified resource is great and my next step here at the New Canaan Library will be to create a dedicated personal archiving web resource for our community, both to highlight these issues and also to draw connections between local resources, equipment and programming. I hope that this will make it easier to connect one-to-one with our patrons, and to provide a more individualized resource for people who are just starting out.

Graphic by Jon Eriksen. Photo by Stano Novak on

You said that some topics you need to explain by demonstration and some topics you can explain with a handout. Can you give me examples of both?

At the end of each presentation, I demonstrate how to create a folder structure because I think it’s helpful to have a visual demonstration – what a well-planned and accessible archive will actually look like. I then scan a photo and import a few more photos, just to show how to rename and sort objects into the folder structure. Finally, I show a couple of examples of archive instructions and inventories.

By this point I have talked people through the four-step strategy, and I think that the demonstration at the end of the class ties everything together and helps people feel that it will be easy to get started. People leave the course with a couple of printouts – a simple step-by-step guide and a list of recommended formats for archiving. I get a lot of questions about things like recommended resolution for scanned images, and the step-by-step guide makes it easier to get started at home.

Why do you think it is important for people to create an inventory at the top level of the folder? Do you think they will actually do it? What information should be in it?

One of my key insights from browsing through other people’s computers while interviewing them while I was working on my thesis was that the way we organize our things to a certain extent reflect the way we think about the world. This helps us to navigate our own material, but can pose a problem when someone else will try to make sense of that archive.

People only rarely consider that someone else might look at their personal materials, but when you speak with them most people don’t want their photos, records and correspondence to be unavailable to their children, to future generations. I think it’s really important to be clear and systematic when you create a personal digital archive. Keeping an easy-to-find guide or inventory in a top-level folder makes your materials so much more accessible for someone else.

To further future-proof the archive, I recommend that people include system and software information and that people keep a log where they record decisions about naming conventions and preferred formats so that those decisions don’t have to be made every time they add material to the archive. And if people include scanned material, I think it’s a good idea to include a note about where the originals are stored.

I know that most people won’t do all of these things – I don’t always do them myself. But to include at least a rudimentary description of the archive is such good practice that I have to talk about it. I find that people aren’t generally thinking about someone else going through their digital materials at all, so talking about these issues and writing out a description allows people to actually imagine someone else trying to navigate their archive.

Tell me about the New Canaan Library’s VHS dubbing stations.

The Library recently acquired a VHS-to-DVD recorder for the digitization of our VHS collection. When I mentioned this during a presentation, I received a lot of questions, so we decided to buy a second unit for public use. It quickly became a very popular service, and now we have both machines set up for public use and we digitize our own materials when they are not booked by the public.

If money and resources were not obstacles for public libraries, what would you like to see public libraries do to help their communities understand personal digital archiving?

Events and classes and printed resources are of course really important. I also think it’s crucial that all public libraries provide the same general guidelines and teach a common set of steps for personal digital archiving, and to help the public understand why continuous management of digital materials is necessary. For most people, archiving your material is an afterthought at best.

I think that one of the major mental hurdles people face is the enormous backlog that most people now have. It’s so important to keep guides and handouts concise and easy to follow, and to teach people how to do at least the bare minimum with the backlog while at the same time taking some proactive steps to prepare new material for the long run.

Do you have any thoughts about how to motivate librarians to give these workshops and keep them going regularly?

In my early conversations I found people to be passionately interested in the issues once they thought about them and I really want to emphasize how interesting these classes are to teach. They’ve also been very well attended, in my experience. It’s not hard to get the ball rolling, once you have a well-designed class package to help you get started.

Personal digital archiving really isn’t difficult, and is such an interesting area with huge potential for library programming and community building. I’m sure these types of classes will become standard at every library at some point.

What do you think the basic things are that every person needs to know about personal digital archiving?

If you want your digital materials to last, they need continuous management and care. If you do nothing to keep your materials organized, safe, and accessible, they will be lost.