My talk at Personal Digital Archiving 2012

On February 27, 2012, in Research, by Chris Prom

iKive: Towards a Trusted Digital Personal Archives Service

This is an expanded/revised version of remarks made I made during a lighting talk session at Personal Digital Archiving 2012.

Important Notice

Hi, I’m Chris.  Since 1999, I’ve been working as an Archivist at the University of Illinois Archives. There are several thousand people like me across the country.  We work in institutions large and small, in academic archives, manuscript repositories, government archives, and in historical societies.  To date, people working in places like that have played an essential role in  in making formerly private personal records publicly accessible, in a way that they can bed used by students, scholars, family historians, and others who engage in the process of constructing history.

Today, I’d like to describe something that I believe the world needs if we are to continue making private records public.  The tool that I am going to describe will ensure that archivists are able to acquire personal digital archives, and that they can  preserve them in a way that makes them publicly-available just like the non-digital personal archives generated in the past.  But first, let me tell you a story.

Last November, I boarded an Amtrak train at Union station in Chicago.  I had just a left a meeting of the “Fundamental Change” working group. This was formed by the Society of American Archivists to revise our basic instructional manuals.  Everyone at the meeting was acutely aware of two facts: 1) that newly-trained archivists need a sophisticated set of digital skills, and 2) that our existing manuals (last revised about five years ago) only addressed the topic tangentially.

Moving quickly to find an open seat, I spotted someone who worked for the University of Illinois—let’s just call this person “Dr. Important.”  Thinking of cordial discussions I had had with him/her over the years, I asked if Dr. Important if I could have a seat.  After we finished the requiste chic-chat, the conversation turned to our current work. “So, Chris, what have you been working  on lately?”

“Well, I’ve been writing a guide to preserving email.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.  Maybe you can help me.”

Who doesn’t like to be asked for help?  Maybe I could tell Dr. Important how organize files, export them to preservation ready formats.  If I was lucky, I might even convince Dr. Important to transfer the email the archives, where it would become a public research resource, along side the print correspondence from many other Dr.’s Important.  But my hopes were quickly dashed.

“You see, I went to look for something I sent back in 2009.  For the past years, I’ve been keeping a copy of all of my important emails, a folder for each month.  But when I went back to find the message I needed, all of the folders were gone.”  After further discussion, Dr. Important told me that IT staff were unable to get the emails bac.  Dr. Important suspects that they went missing during a system migration, which had taken place several months back.  As an archivist, I mourned the death of the evidence Dr. Important had created and cared for over many years.  But I felt helpless and let the conversation float  on to another topic.

This incident and many others have convinced me that only one question really matters to me as an archivist: What can I do to help people ensure that evidence of their lives survives long enough for it to be made part of the historical record?

And what I think I can do is this: to describe to you what I see as a necessary, but missing piece of the digital preservation infrastructure.  Essentially, archivists and those they serve need a service would facilitate long-term, trusting relationships between people and documentation.  Specifically, we need a service that would build trust between those who create digital archives for their private, personal use and those who have dedicated their lives to preserving digital archives for public, historical use.

The non-profit service, which I like to call iKive (but the name is not really that important) would automatically vacuum up metadata and content from the dispersed locations where such records are currently stored: local hard drives, email accounts, social media services, photo sharing sites, and other locations.  It would allow people to gain some measure of control over their digital selves.   The service would use http, https, IMAP and APIs such as those provided by Facebook and other social media sites, Once captured, content would be stored in an account that accessible initially only to the person who created the records or to others with whom they chose to share access.  The content itself would be stored and managed by a trusted member of the digital community (such as the Internet Archive or Duracloud), in multiple, redundant location, possibly using content-centric networking.  For end users, it would provide visualization and data mining tools, to make the data more useful to those who created it.

The service would also include a legacy-management tools, so that users can donate or sell their personal digital archives to one or more research repositories, or so they could provide an opportunity for their heirs to do the same.  It the case of sale, iKive would keep a commission, which would be used to subsidize the cost of the service and/or to provide free accounts for targeted groups of people who may not be able to afford the service, but whose personal digital records have as much historical value as those of the rich and famous.

The service would be based on the following guiding principles:[1]

  1. It would manage personal records as organic evidence of a person’s life and activities.
  2. It will operate securely and with a presumption of privacy.
  3. Users would continue to use existing services and capture operations would be invisible, assuming connection credentials are updated as needed.
  4. It would preserve context by maintaining relationships between records created or used in separate systems.
  5. It will use an open architecture.
  6. It will make use of existing tools and services, to the greatest extent possible (see below).
  7. It will include a plug-in framework, so that connections to new services can be added without modifying the core data model.
  8. It will be an integral part of the academic community.

This tool could be built tomorrow—given enough resources or will.  All of the pieces necessary to build are in place.  Many relevant projects already exist, and since they are open source software.  Several could be directly integrated into the project as data collectors.  Others provide models for new services tool might do:

  • Thinkup is a PHP application that captures social media and makes it useful;
  • Muse does the same for email;
  • ArchivePress and WordPressDatabase Backup are two blog ‘archiving’ tools;
  • ContextMiner, Collectus; and Scholar’s Box allow users to capture and track reference materials;
  • ArchivesSpace is an emergent tool for describing archival materials;
  • Omeka allows people to build exhibits using archival materials; and
  • many other services—new to me—which have been or will be described at this conference.

Whenever I travel to a conference, I bring along a book I’ve been meaning to read. This time, I chose The Children of Sanchez, by Oscar Lewis.  Lewis was an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, and the Archives holds the source materials he used for this book, as well as many of his other personal papers.

A classic work of anthropology, Lewis’s book has been in print continuously since its initial publication in 1961.  Subtitled “An Autobiography of a Mexican Family,” it reveals a story that is articulate, harrowing, and poignant,  Jesus and his children Manual, Roberto, Consuela, and Marta speak as they revealed themselves to Lewis in a series of lengthy conversations.  Lewis recorded their stories on a bulky, ¼ inch open reel audio deck, a new means for conducting anthropology at the time.[2]  The Children of Sanchez evokes a genuine an revelaing humanity, both on that part of Lewis, but more so of Jesus and his children.

In his introduction, Lewis notes that “[i]n obtaining the detailed and intimate data of these life stories,” he “used no secret techniques, no truth drugs, no psychoanalytic couch.” Over time, and Snchez family came to trust him so much that they were willing, even eager, to make their private lives public. “The most effective tools of the anthropologist are sympathy and compassion for the people he studies.”

Likewise, I believe that the most effective tools of the archivist are sympathy and compassion for the people he or she documents.  In my experience, someone will decide to make his or her personal archives into a public resource only after he or she comes to trust an archivist.

With a tool like the one I have described, archivists can build trust with those who are making history today.  By giving people the means to gather a personal archives and to make it more useful, archivists will enable the transformation of personal digital archives into a public resource, at a time of the donor’s choosing.  In the meantime, our digital files will be more useful to us, managed by a service supports our ability to determine our own digital legacy, free from the constraints of those who seek to control it for their own profit.[3]

Because I plan to revise and submit this post for publication, it is not provided under the creative commons license that applies to the majority of items on this site.


This post is © Copyright 2010, Christopher J. Prom.  All rights reserved.  This draft is made available for private study and comment in anticipation of possible future publication. You may print one copy for personal use, may link into the post, and may use short extracts of the use of public comment or criticism.  Do not redistribute or quote extensively without my written permission.

[1] These principles are adapted from Adrian Cunningham, “Ghosts in the Machine: Towards a Principles-Based Approach to Making and Keeping Digital Personal Records,” in I, Digital: Personal Digital Collections in the Digital Era (Chicago, Illinois: Society of American Archivists, 2011), 78–89.

[2] Lewis’s wife and research partner Ruth Maslow edited them for publication, retaining their original flavor while anonymizing them to make them publishable which protecting the family’s privacy.

[3] James Fallows, “Facebook, Google, and the Future of the Online ‘Commons’,” The Atlantic Blogs, February 3, 2012,; Jeff Sommer, “An I.P.O. Process That Is Customer-Friendly,” New York Times, February 18, 2012,


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