Personal Digital Archiving

A few months ago, while researching how to archive digital photos, I learned about PDA (Personal Digital Archiving). It’s a growing area of study, for academics, independent scholars and personal archivists, with its own annual conference. I’ve decided to submit a proposal this year. The deadline is Monday, December 7th.


As the centrality of personal digital archives and the ubiquity of digital content grows, librarians, archivists, scholars, students, activists, and those who fill the role of the “family IT person,” have to deal with how to best select, preserve, and manage digital material. PDA 2016 seeks to host a discussion across domains focusing on how to best manage personal digital material, be it at a large institution or in a home office.


My Focus: “Personal digital archives and why they matter to individuals, communities, and organizations”

Here’s my first draft of the abstract which can be up to 300 words. It’s 299.

From Scraps of Memory to Fragments of Unofficial Student Life: Personal Digital Archives as Storytelling

Faced with the loss of two grounding forces, my family’s farm and my passion for being an academic, I felt compelled to recover, collect, organize, explore and experiment with materials from my past. Photos, video footage, papers, exams, syllabi, memoirs, letters, scrapbooks, teachers’ comments, course blogs, tweets, newspaper clippings, digitized oral history recordings and more. The result of this memory work are two ongoing online story projects: a story experiment about my family’s farm, The Farm and a virtual collection of accounts of my Undisciplined life as a student, scholar and teacher.

Central to both of these projects is the creation and maintenance of public/online digital archives that not only offer a way to organize and access the personal materials that I use in my story projects, but serve as crucial parts of the storytelling process. For my farm project, which is inspired by a Finnish rag rug loom, the materials in my archive are digital “scraps of memory” that can be accessed and re-purposed by anyone who wants to use them to “weave” their own stories about the Farm. For my Undisciplined life project, the materials in my archive become an unofficial student transcript that provides a record of my undisciplined life as a student and allows me to trace an alternative trajectory for my scholarly self to a space beside and besides the academy.

In this talk, I will describe how these digital archives function within my two storytelling projects, why they are so important in my own processes of remembering and re-imaging my past, and why I’m chosing to house them online on a public blog. I will also discuss my efforts and struggles with collecting materials and determining how to make them accessible to a wide range of people.

UPDATE: Here’s my official submission.

A Bad Rememberer

Note: I wrote the first part of this entry over a year ago. After finding it in the “pending” section of my posts, I decided to add onto it and post it now.

This morning I found a fitting quotation in a New Yorker interview:

When it comes to memories of that iconic type, memories that are burned into you, I have maybe ten or so from my childhood. I’m a bad rememberer of situations. I forget almost everything as soon as it happens. But when it comes to landscapes and rooms, it’s different. I think I remember every single room that I have been in from the age of seven. What I did was to place myself in those rooms, and when I started to write about them it was like unlocking a thousand small doors, all leading further into childhood. It’s all there, you know, inside us, it’s just a matter of finding the way.


This quotation really resonates with me and my feelings about remembering. The idea of finding the way to remember is significant for my Farm project. One of the reasons that I’m revisiting my archival materials and the footage that Scott and I shot over a decade ago is so that I can hopefully unlock some doors into my past.

I also like the idea of the bad rememberer. As I think about it more, all sorts of questions about remembering are popping into my head. I wonder, what does it mean to be a good rememberer? Do they remember past experiences just like they actually happened? Is that even possible? 

Since writing these statements above, I encountered a very different take on the “bad rememberer.” In an essay for Rookie Magazine, Zadie Smith embraces her bad memory and a “miasma of non-memory”:

I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened—and I like it that way. I feel when I am very old and my brain “goes” it won’t feel so very different from the life I live now, in this miasma of non-memory, which, though it infuriates my nearest and dearest, must suit me somehow, as I can’t seem, even by acts of will, to change it.

Zadie Smith

I like this idea of non-memory and Smith’s willingness to accept embrace it. I especially like how she links it to her fiction writing in the next paragraph of her essay:

I wonder if it isn’t obliquely connected to the way I write my fiction, in which, say, a doormat in an apartment I lived in years ago will reappear, just as it once was, that exact doormat, same warp and weft, and yet I can’t say when exactly I lived there, who I was dating or even if my own father was alive or dead at the time. Perhaps the first kind of non-memory system—the one that can’t retain dates or significant events—allows the other kind of memory system to operate, the absence of the first making space for the second, clearing a path for that whatever-it-is which seems to dart through my mind like a shy nocturnal animal, dragging back strange items like doormats, a single wilted peony, or a beloved strawberry sticker, not seen since 1986, but still shaped like a strawberry and scented like one, too.

Zadie Smith

I wonder, is this “other kind of memory system” only suitable for fiction? Why? What sort of truth/truths can we communicate by conjuring up beloved fragments of memory?

Since it’s early in the morning and I’m running out of time, I’ll leave that last question unexplained…for now. I plan to interrogate it further soon. 


As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’m really enjoying Cowbird. Since I’m planning to use it, I wanted to get a feel for the community and how other people tell and share stories. One feature that I’ve been using to see different stories is Serendipity. It’s an icon located in the upper left corner of the home page. When you click on it, it takes you to a random story. Scott has a similar feature on his blog called Spin the Wheel (which is a WordPress plugin, random redirect).

I like this idea. I think it would be cool to have this tool in the database. Users could click on the icon to find a random photo, video, archival document, question, etc. What should I call it? Hmmm….

follow-up note: I’m still not sure what to call the random item generator but, since it will be in the “scraps of memory database” section, which is connected to the “banging on the loom” interactive documentary, I’m thinking the name should be loom/rag rug-related.

Analysis: Lost and Found

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Yesterday I discovered, Lost and Found. Developed and produced my NPR’s Picture Show, it’s a cool interactive documentary/photo story about the amateur photographer, Charles W. Cushman. I don’t want to do a complete analysis in this post. Instead, I’d like to highlight a few aspects of this documentary that I find compelling, engaging and useful.

1. I really like the overall layout of this site: the fullscreen slideshow at the top, featuring Cushman’s beautiful color photographs; the easy slide down to a text description and a big “play” button which starts the brief and compelling story (a slideshow with voiceover); and finally, the “a little bit more” section that includes information about the photos and the archive of Cushman’s photos at Indiana University.

2. I especially appreciate how the story has a navigation bar at the top with four different sections. When you click on the one of the sections, the story (almost) immediately scrolls you to it. This feature is great for two reasons. First, it allows the reader to flip through the sections without having to watch the entire story repeatedly. Second, the quick scrolling between sections allows you to move around the story without having to wait too long for pages to load.

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3. I think this interactive documentary does an excellent job of getting user’s excited about Cushman’s photography and of inspiring them to visit the online archive at Indiana University.