Getting personal: confronting the challenges of archiving personal records in the digital age

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Bass, Jordan Leslie
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Personal digital records are one of the most underrepresented areas of archival theory and practice. Documentary forms created by private persons have long been victim of a poverty of professional attention, and much of the literature on the appraisal and preservation of records has tended to focus on those generated by government and other organizational entities. And strategies developed for the archival management of digital records have similarly placed strong emphasis on business functions or corporate transactions as the primary unit of analysis. This scholastic deficit has severely impaired the ability of the archivist to comprehend and effectively meet the many challenges of archiving personal records in the digital age. This thesis demonstrates how investigations of the original context of creation and use of records in contemporary personal computing environments are integral to the development of comprehensive strategies for the capture and preservation of personal digital archives. It is within these digital domains that archivists come to see cultures of personal recordkeeping, private appraisal decisions based on unique designations of value, and the complexities of both online and offline personal digital preservation strategies. A keen understanding of how individuals create and preserve their digital records across time and space should be of the utmost importance to archivists for, if nothing else, these pre-custodial activities are the principal sites of archival provenance. Chapter one discusses past and present responses to both paper-based and electronic personal archives. The discussion begins with the definition of the personal record as essentially non-archival by early leading archival theorists and how these definitions, though first advanced in the early to mid-twentieth century, continue to find resonance in contemporary archival ideas and institutional mandates. This chapter then illustrates how ideas predicated on the management of electronic government records, and metadata standards developed for formalized electronic recordkeeping systems, are not easily transposed to personal domains. Chapter two takes a critical look at the often oversimplified personal digital archiving environment to expose the many nuances in the context of creation and use of records by individuals in the digital era. Chapter three explores a number of emerging approaches to the professional archiving of personal digital records and reveals how the proper management of these materials requires multiple hardware and software applications, concise acquisition strategies and preservation methodologies, and diligent front-end work to ensure personal digital records cross the threshold of archival repositories. The thesis concludes with a summary of the main arguments and collates the best ideas, approaches, and technologies reviewed throughout to propose a hypothetical strategy for archiving personal digital records in the present. This thesis argues that significantly more work with records creators earlier in the record creation process must be done when archiving personal digital records because more proactive measures are required to capture and preserve these materials than was previously the case with paper-based or analog documentary forms.
Personal Archives, Personal Information Management, Digital Archives, Archival Intervention, Personal Records, Original Context of Creation and Use, Pre-Ingest, Pre-Custodial