Posted by: michaeldaybath | January 14, 2011

Storing your digital legacy in the attic?

I was very interested to read John Naughton’s recent piece in The Observer (January 9, 2011) entitled “If you have lofty ambitions for your legacy, head for the attic” [1]. According to its preamble, the article had been mainly triggered by a presentation by my former colleague Lorcan Dempsey (now Vice President and Chief Strategist at OCLC) on how academic libraries were addressing the challenges of preserving digital material, and in particular the role of Emory University as custodians of the literary archives of the writer Salman Rushdie [2].

Traditionally, a number of libraries have taken an interest in the preservation of the literary archives of famous authors, which might include things like manuscript drafts, corrected proofs, correspondence or other personal papers. Emory, for example, has significant collections of the papers of British and Irish poets and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has ever growing collections of the papers of modern writers [3].  In the UK, major collections of literary archives are held by all of the national libraries as well as by university libraries like those in Cambridge, Leeds, London, Manchester and Oxford. The  Bodleian Library in Oxford, for example, holds historically important collections of the papers of Shelley and Hopkins, as well as those of a number of modern authors with an Oxford connection [4]. As Naughton points out, the literary archives of the vast majority of contemporary writers will now be largely digital. The challenges that result from this have now begun to be addressed. Examples of UK research initiatives in this area include the  Digital Lives at the British Library [5] and the JISC-funded Paradigm project [6].

However, Naughton is not just concerned with the fate of Salman Rushdie’s papers at Emory. The article makes a clear distinction between what Emory might hope to do with Rushdie’s digital effects and the things that we may need to do to ensure that our own personal ‘content’ endures beyond our lifetimes. I was not personally convinced that printing stuff out to be placed in landfill by your relatives was a particularly good solution, although it might – on occasion – work for certain classes of material (e.g. family photographs, some letters). However, I did think that it was interesting that Naughton’s piece didn’t primarily focus on the technological challenges of managing content over time (obsolescent PC hard drives are not the only potential problem), but on the futility of relying on third-party, ‘cloud-based’ services for longer-term persistence. Given the current focus of social network or SMS providers and the recent panic over the Delicious social bookmarking service, he is probably right in thinking this. Paradoxically, however, I think that any sustainable digital solution to this problem will most likely at least in part be based within that same cloud-shaped space. The key problem then will be developing business models that work, and then we get into all of the troubling questions about the identity of funders and beneficiaries raised recently by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access [7]

As I’m not convinced that the majority of ‘memory institutions’ will want to expand their activities massively in the personal archiving area (in the short term at least) perhaps we should focus in the first place on promulgating the best practices that individuals could adopt for managing content in the present, tempered with some awareness of what might need to be done to ensure its survival into the next generation (and the exact circumstances when this might be be required). The US National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) initiative has produced some initial guidance in this area [8-9], and a number of helpful hints can also be found on blogs [e.g., 10]. These largely focus on the importance of knowing what you have, the need to focus on selected (and well-organised) content, the desirability of having more than one point of failure (e.g., multiple copies stored in different locations) and the need for periodic checking and refreshing. Whether this will ultimately be more effective than the “print out and store somewhere” solution remains to be seen, but there does seem to be a need for sustainable third party services that could provide support for at least some of these wider preservation functions.

Finally, it should be noted that there will be differences between an individual’s motivations for preserving personal content and those of third-party services like Flickr, where at least some of the added-value comes from the aggregation of certain classes of content. This means that the preservation strategies required by individuals may not entirely coincide with those deemed appropriate for these services.


1. John Naughton, “If you have lofty amitions for your legacy, head for the attic,” The Observer, 9 January 2011. Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

2. Emory University, “Archives: Salman Rushdie.” Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

3. Chris Arnot, “Stemming the flow of literary heritage across the pond,” The Guardian, 15 July 2008. Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

4. Bodleian Library, “Literary papers.” Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

5. Digital Lives project. Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

6. Paradigm project. Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

7. Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, Sustainable economics for a digital planet: Ensuring long-term access to digital information (2010). Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

8. NDIIPP, “Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories.” Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

9. NDIIPP,  “Preserving your digital memories.” Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:

10. Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, “Clean sweep in the New Year: Organizing digital photos,” 4 January 2011. Retrieved January 14, 2011 from:


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