Last updated on 4 November 2020

Jacob Bickford, Erin Liu, Ellie Peng, Ash Ullah are Bridging the Digital Gap trainees with The National Archives.

We are four Bridging the Digital Gap trainees employed by The National Archives (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and seconded across four host institutions: University of the Arts London, London Metropolitan Archives, Transport for London Corporate Archives and University of Westminster.  The traineeship scheme is designed to bring our digital capabilities to the archives sector whilst developing our skills in various aspects of archival practice.

Whilst forming our proposal for a collaborative cross-institutional project, we were cognisant of our position as trainees working in archives that sit within comparatively larger organisations, bodies with resources to support the hosting and operation of purpose-built digital preservation systems.  We wondered where newcomers (like ourselves), ‘non-specialist’ practitioners and/or those without a massive budget sat in relation to this digital preservation landscape, which could appear resource-intensive and technically complex.  We were keen to explore how digital preservation tools can be approached as readily as any other everyday DIY tool, since the practices of creating, storing, keeping and sharing material are intuitive and necessary to all.

We set out to share some cost-effective tools and strategies, drawn from our own training and further research, with people both within and beyond the archives sector. We remained conscious of our newness to this material ourselves, and thus sought to facilitate an approachable and supportive environment, conducive to participant input and shared learning.  We agreed that a workshop series focused on DIY approaches to personal digital archiving would be best suited to our project motivations.  Our aim with these workshops was less to form new knowledge based on our (very!) early-career perspectives, but rather to draw from existing research, learn from our participants and raise awareness around preservation of personal digital assets.

In developing the material for our workshops, we took a variety of research approaches.  Our workshops drew heavily from recommendations from the DPC’s Novice-to-Know-How modules, Gabriela Redwine’s 2015 Technology Watch Report on Personal Digital Archiving and The National Archives’ digital preservation workflows, as well as further resources from the Library of Congress, the Bodleian Library and the Software Sustainability Institute.  In April, we participated in a workshop hosted by the Oakville Arts Council to see how they negotiated similar material through online delivery.  We also consulted experts in the field, including Ana Pericci, Natasa Milic-Frayling, David Whorlow and Oral History Society staff.

From this research, we developed a shared structure for the workshop series covering fundamental elements of digital preservation. We then independently developed media-specific content based on each of our own interests, as well as those of our host archives’ audiences.  In partnership with our host organisations, we delivered four iterative workshops over four months:

These sessions were free to attend and targeted toward ‘everyday’ practitioners creating digital material that they’d like to access in the long-term.  The sessions included a general introduction to the importance of personal digital archiving, an overview of practical tools and tips to care for personal digital material, as well as hands-on activities to help participants get started in thinking about caring for their own stuff.

The workshops proved to be popular, with a total of forty participants across the series. Participants’ familiarity with digital preservation varied. Some participants pointed to feelings of anxiety around organising and maintaining their digital material.  Others had already begun seriously thinking about the long-term care of their digital material but were unsure of where to start.  For these participants, the workshops offered clear strategies and tools to support their aims. Some technical specialists attended the workshop as well, and while we were concerned that the workshop content might not meet their needs, the participatory nature of the workshop meant new perspectives to existing practices could be shared through discussion. In fact, discussion sections of the workshops were most effective at facilitating peer-to-peer learning across different levels of knowledge and experience.  In some instances, workshops helped lay the foundations for cross-organisational relationships amongst record creators, technicians and archivists.

From workshop feedback, it was conveyed that participants were excited to be introduced to cost-free tools to begin taking concrete steps to care for their digital stuff.  From our trainee-perspective, the project gave us the opportunity to collectively unpick the granular processes underlying the digital preservation systems used at our host organisations.  Our main takeaway from the project was that the desire to care for personal digital material is not a niche interest, but rather an aspiration that is widely shared.  Given the strong enthusiasm for personal digital archiving expressed by participants, we hope to continue building upon similar work in the future.  Particularly in this historical moment, when digital record creation is experiencing an influx at personal and institutional scales, we encourage others to update, remix and repurpose our material for application in their own environments.

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