Avoiding the Digital Dark Age
I came to Idealware from the library world: I earned a master’s degree in library and information science and worked as an archivist for a few years. Archivists make sure that users can access and understand information in all formats for years to come. Not all information survives, of course. In fact, at the National Archives, where I worked, we were tasked with preserving and describing only those Federal government records deemed “permanent”, or critical for our democracy to continue to function. (That’s only about 1%-3% of all the records that the Federal government generates.)
Did we have to make sure all this important stuff was kicking around forever? Not exactly. Even acid-free paper disintegrates eventually, no matter how much you do to preserve it. Born-digital records—e-mails, documents, video, audio, databases, photographs, etc—are proving to be even trickier. Some digital preservation scholars think that future historians will call this era the digital dark age due to the amount of information our society faces losing.
What about your nonprofit’s electronic records—will they become a part of the digital dark age? Preserving your legacy might seem like a lofty issue, or one that only established organizations with institutional archives need to consider. But consider what would happen if all of your work e-mails vanished overnight, never to be seen again. How might that affect the health of your organization? What about all of your social media—what will happen to all of your carefully crafted posts and your network of followers if the platform you use folds? Check the End User License Agreement—the platform’s creators probably don’t owe you very much.
Chris Prom, an archivist at the University of Illinois and the brain behind the blog Practical E-Records, does a fabulous job of outlining the big-picture issues at hand in his paper “Facilitating Archives in a Facebook Era,” posted in draft form here. (Full disclosure—Chris was my boss when I was a graduate assistant at the University Archives.) Describing the problems inherent with “ensuring the preservation of evidence when people’s communication tools have, in effect, become the organization’s official recordkeeping mechanism”, he concludes that to capture e-mail, social media, and other ephemeral digital communications, “what people need most are practical tools and services.” A statement after Idealware’s own heart!
Chris and his colleagues at Illinois are proposing to develop a tool called myKive, an open-source and customizable personal archiving software that will to capture the digital interactions of its users without affecting their daily routine and that will give them complete control over the data harvested. Like many others interested in digital records, I’ll be following the tool’s development closely in the hopes that it might have some application for nonprofits looking to preserve their digital legacy in an easy and cost-effective way. Let’s hope we can stave off the return of another dark age!