Personal Digital Archiving and Public Libraries

Amy Wickner


Public library programs and services increasingly bring personal digital archiving and do-it-yourself digital conversion into public spaces. What are the values and impacts of such resources? What role, if any, does public memory play in these personal practices? This poster reports on early findings from interviews with District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) patrons and staff about their experiences with these emerging spaces and resources. Data from this three-month study include seven hours of participant observation around everyday technology use and personal digital archiving events at DCPL; hour-long semi-structured interviews with thirteen individuals; and supplemental material such as text, image, and interactive resources created in support of personal digital archiving at the public library.

“Personal digital archiving” is how individuals accumulate, organize, store, and preserve digital material as part of their personal lives.1 Practices range from “digital hoarding”2 to deliberate forgetting,3 but Marshall (2011) captures the norm in recommending that personal digital archiving systems “implicitly acknowledge the human tendency toward benign neglect, by gently allowing gradual loss of items of ambivalent value.”4 Losing is as much a part of personal digital archiving as saving or keeping, and neither catastrophic nor everyday data loss necessarily affects how individuals manage their digital possessions.5 Personal practices can integrate with public or semi-public sharing, as seen in the use of social media platforms for personal digital curation6 and as personal memorials.7 “Virtual reminiscing about local experiences” via Facebook groups is one example of how individuals contribute to collective memory through personal digital archiving and social sharing.8

This project responds to an emerging intersection of personal practices and public institutions, and to gaps in research on values and impacts. Studies of the values and impacts of public libraries have tended to address how these institutions systematically assess and demonstrate their effectiveness, one sign of a managerial turn in libraries.9 This trend leaves space to examine how values and impacts are conveyed through discourse and storytelling.

Lenstra, N. (2014). ‘You know you from Champaign-Urbana’: An ethnography of localized African-American archiving initiatives. In D. Daniel & A. Levi (Eds.), Identity Palimpsests: Archiving Ethnicity in the U.S. and Canada (pp. 35-55). Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books.
Marshall, C. C. (2011). Challenges and opportunities for personal digital archiving. In Christopher A. Lee (Ed.), I, digital: Personal collections in the digital era (pp. 90–114). Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists.



I’m a PhD student in information studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I help manage the University Libraries’ born digital archives and electronic records program.