Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: I, Digital – A History Devoid of the Personal?

Chris Rusbridge reviews an edited volume that aims to fill a gap in ‘literature designed specifically to guide archivists’ thinking about personal digital materials’.

We are all too familiar with the dire predictions of coming Digital Dark Ages, when All Shall be Lost because of the fragility of our digital files and the transience of the formats. We forget, of course, that loss was always the norm. The wonderful documents in papyrus, parchment and paper that we so admire and wonder at, are the few lucky survivors of their times. Sometimes they have been carefully nurtured, sometimes they have been accidentally preserved. But almost all were lost!

If this is true for important, official documents, how much more true it is of documentation of everyday life. Our great libraries and archives store documents from a very few lives, mostly of those considered important. The everyday life of the past is lost to us; our archives are not big enough to hold a tiny fraction of one percent of the documentation from everyday lives, should we make this a goal.

Cal Lee points out in I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era that even those archives that attempt to document the lives of some of the famous and important among us are still mostly focused on ‘papers’. Meanwhile nearly everyone, including the famous and important, has shifted their documentary activity to the digital world. In his Introduction, Lee notes ‘the literature designed specifically to guide archivists’ thinking about personal digital materials has long been limited to a few scattered journal articles and research project websites’. With this book he aims to fill this gap.


The book has an Introduction and three parts, comprising 9 chapters. A couple of the contributors were clearly invited to revisit earlier articles they had written on this topic; this was perhaps a mistake, as the resulting sections are less interesting and somewhat self-admiring. Several of the chapters are excellent, however, and one or two are really well written, happily including the last, allowing the book to finish (as shall I) on an optimistic, hopeful note.

Each chapter has a set of end notes; they are mostly references (sometimes portmanteau collections of many references), but a few are indeed notes. Perhaps this is common in such volumes, but I found it confusing. There is also a bibliography, list of contributors, and index. I am uncertain how comprehensive the bibliography is attempting to be, but I suspect it is simply a collection of the references from the chapters.

The review copy is a well-constructed paperback, but suffers from printing problems on a small percentage of its pages, with areas of fading text (an unlikely problem in any e-book version that might emerge).

Likely Readership

Obvious possible audiences for this book include: archival researchers, archival students, archivists, the famous and important subjects already selected for future archiving of their personal digital collections, and the rest of us. It seems clear that the book is mainly aimed at the first and third of these categories. When considering the weight to give to this review, you might remember that this author is clearly in the last group: infamous, unimportant and unqualified for the job!


I believe this volume is a valuable contribution to, and provides some progress for an important subject. As already noted, some chapters are excellent.

Catherine Marshall’s chapter on Challenges and Opportunities in particular is excellent writing, based on real research on real people. However, she gives us a quite pessimistic and jaundiced (but realistic) view of human nature and our ability to manage our personal information. There are so many great quotable quotes; here is a selection:

“It is also important to realize that deletion comes with an associated cost. Why fight against intellectual gravity? … as yet there is no Nobel prize or Oscar awarded for maintaining a neat, well-pruned file system.”

 “There is another, more principled, reason to keep everything. This perspective stems from the idea that the computer will eventually serve as the ultimate memory prosthesis. … Deleting files is tantamount to deliberately making a hole in one’s memories, inducing amnesia…”

 “… people seem to be relying on disk crashes, technology failure, and periodic obsolescence as a way of pruning their collections.”

 “Thus, from a collections standpoint, what we are looking for varies with value, and that value is not a guaranteed attribute of an item.”

“… professional archivists are developing best practices for the stewardship of these personal collections. But the question is, how relevant are these best practices to the consumer at home who has neither the resources, inclinations, skills nor time to apply them?”

In the end, it seems that benign neglect may be the best we can hope for!

Kristina Spurgin has also provided an excellent and thought-provoking chapter on practices amongst serious leisure practitioners in the field of photography, based on a study of one year’s worth of postings on a photography forum. It is clear that this is a thoroughly biased sample, but that is the point; this is a group which is mostly trying hard to develop and apply good practice in managing personal digital collections that are really important to them. She is not quite so clear on the implications for archiving this material, despite a section on applying principles from the oft-mentioned Paradigm Project [1]. Her article is also full of quotable remarks; here is a small selection:

“… information management is a set of tasks that are, at best a low priority, and often indefinitely postponed.”

 “Many people dread losing their home mode [sic] photos; often described as irreplaceable, family photos are among the most cherished objects in the home. Ironically, their digital collection-keeping often contradicts their stated values in this matter.”

 “As Catherine Marshall points out, lots of copies may keep things safe, they also make it even harder to keep track of what one has.”

I would pass over much of Sue McKemmish’s chapter, but two things stand out. The first is the wonderful quotation that inspires her title (from a novel by Graham Swift [2]):

“Keep them, burn them, they are evidence of me.”

This is a valuable reminder of the potential role of the traces of our lives as evidence of our very existence, and the fragility of that evidence.

The last part of her chapter is a discussion of extensive archival configurations (ie archives that go beyond any single place or organisation), and also the idea that individuals own the records about them in some deep way. Discussing the archive of the Koorie indigenous community in south-eastern Australia, ‘a space in which Koorie oral memory can be captured, shared and linked to archival sources’, she mentions the impassioned cry of Rene Baker, one of the Stolen Generation [3]:

“They’ve got me up there in Canberra”…

The last chapter is by Susan Thomas, Digital Archivist at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This is a sensible, practical discussion based from considerable experience of actually doing digital archiving, through the Paradigm Project already mentioned, and Oxford’s futureArch programme [4]. This is the solid heart of the book, and it would be worth its price even if this were all that you read! She does not shy away from advice, for example:

“… during discussions with creators and families, it is imperative that archivists sketch a detailed map of the creators’ online data stores, and determine with them which aspects of their online presence will form part of their archives. This entails making provisions that enable the library to acquire the specified digital content from third party web services at the right time…”

Not So Strong…

As any edited volume, this is patchy. I was tempted to reach for the comment about the curate’s egg; “good in parts” is the common version, but on checking (Wikipedia I’m afraid [5]) I realised that this saying is commonly misquoted and even more misunderstood. What is more, it underlines the importance of keeping ‘original’ sources [6](ie not Wikipedia) to remind us how things change in common understanding over time. We need our archives for that. Do check it yourself!

“Your mileage may vary” as they say in Internet circles; what I found confusing or less interesting, those more closely involved may find involving and insightful. For example, Leslie Johnston’s chapter on tools developed at the University of Virginia may be helpful to those moving into this area, but left me rather unengaged.

I suspect as editor, Cal Lee found himself without obvious candidates for some areas, and as a result he appears as author of a couple of the more difficult chapters (in addition to the Introduction). First, the chapter he co-authored with Robert Capra on necessary connections between research in Personal Information Management and Archives and Records Management (PIM and ARM in the chapter) is quite off-putting. It comes first, immediately after the Introduction, but seems to be an inconclusive mapping of the different approaches. A stronger editorial hand might have relegated this chapter to some less prominent position, and allowed some of the greater delights to tempt the reader on. As it is, this chapter together with the rear-view mirror chapter from Adrian Cunningham stand as rather a road-block that the reader must circumvent before getting to Marshall’s piece.

Lee is also the author of the chapter on the ‘externalised me’, the place of the social Web in personal archiving. The social Web is clearly of crucial importance in gathering a rounded view of the digital traces of many lives today. Of course, anything written in this area tends to get outdated quickly as the world moves on so quickly, and it is possible that this otherwise interesting chapter was largely written in 2008-9. It tends to focus on the blogosphere, YouTube and other services where most content is publicly accessible. There does not appear to be a serious discussion on the more recent emergence of the social Web as multiple ‘walled gardens’, or the current dominance of Facebook.

Although the metaphor ‘walled garden’ is often used for these services, as a hint that they attempt to separate themselves from the open Web, privacy concerns of users mean that each service is partitioned internally into many private areas, each allowing access to a select set of ‘friends’. A better metaphor might be ‘gated community’ [7]. This presents real challenges to the archivist, not discussed in this chapter. The quotation from Thomas above indicates that the Bodleian is addressing this, and it would have been helpful to have more to read on the subject. Lee does draw attention to the

“… numerous risk factors associated with reliance on web service providers for persistent access to personal materials.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of the chapter on the ‘implications of personal records in electronic form’ from Rachel Onuf and Thomas Hyry (another 1990s revisit). I very much hated the idea of the vanishing non-digital:

“We all increasingly live in a world where information not available online may as well be information that does not exist.”

Harrumph. Well, yes, in everyday life maybe, but I hope never in scholarship. We the people demand scholars who care about their sources, no matter how inconvenient their location or encoding! However, this was good:

“While a great deal is appropriately made of the cost of developing digital repositories and preserving digital assets, paper collections provide their own enormous and at times hidden or assumed costs…”

And they have a positive view that underlines the importance of this area:

“Archivists have the ability to document the human experience like never before.”


Although most documentation of the human experience will continue to be lost, as Onuf and Hyry imply, personal collections have amazing potential for the future of history. For that potential to be realised, we rely on archivists to identify important candidates and to act timeously (a wonderfully appropriate Scots word) to bring those collections across the archival threshold. Death is too late! This will be very difficult; personal practice is extremely fractured, and both it and the digital environment are changing rapidly. Clear advice is needed, for archivists, and for individuals who may be potential subjects.

This volume does not offer that clear advice, but it is a step along the way. What we need now is more experience along the lines of that at Oxford, the British Library and other institutions, sensibly documented, and moving towards guidance. For that, we need archives the world over to understand that their world has irrevocably changed, that they cannot continue as before tending their collections of papers, that they must invest in dealing with the I, Digital. The last word should go to Susan Thomas:

“In defiance of the scare stories about digital black holes – a history devoid of the personal – perhaps the phenomenon of the personal archive in the research library may yet survive, even thrive, once the digital tipping point truly hits us.”

List of Chapters


  1. The Personal Archives Accessible in Digital Media (paradigm) project  http://www.paradigm.ac.uk/
  2. Graham Swift, Ever After.  Picador, February 1992,  ISBN 9780330323314
  3. ReconciliACTION: Stolen Generations Fact Sheet, 28 July 2007, updated 21 Feb 2012
  4. The futureArch Project (2008-11), Bodleian Electronic Archives and Manuscripts (BEAM) http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/beam/projects/futurearch
  5. Wikipedia: The Curate’s Egg, 14:48, 17 July 2012  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg
  6. du Maurier, G. (1895). True Humility. Punch.
  7. I am indebted to Sheila Morrissey of Ithaka for this suggested term, via Twitter.

Author Details

Chris Rusbridge
Chris Rusbridge Consulting

Chris Rusbridge is a Consultant specialising in digital preservation and research data curation. He was the Director of the UK’s Digital Curation Centre from February 2005 until retiring from that post in April 2010.

That appointment followed five years as Director of Information Services at the University of Glasgow.  There his responsibilities included the Library and Archives, together with IT, MIS, and A/V services.  For the previous five years, he was Programme Director of the JISC Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib), a major digital library R&D Programme.  During his tenure at JISC, one of his major interests was preservation of digital materials, the subject of a set of JISC-funded studies and major international workshops in 1995, 1999 and 2005, held at Warwick. Previously he held a number of management positions in academic and library computing in the UK and Australia.