Personal Digital Libraries

My eyes popped as I read a scholarly essay, written by a British librarian, exploring what it means to have so many people, storing so much in the way of pictures, stories, data and memorabilia, in digital form. The essay focused on technical and legal issues. But this digital shoebox phenomenon has an implicit business dimension.

Thanks to Neal Beagrie of the UK Joint Information Systems Committee and the British Library for writing, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he lays out a premise that is both obvious and profound — as we sock away gigabytes of digitalia, we create the challenge of preserving, protecting, and sometimes simply finding that bit we know that we once stored somewhere.

Or, as Neal says: “Individuals have always used physical artifacts as external memory and reference aids. Over time these have ranged from personal journals and diaries, to photographs and photographic albums, to whole personal libraries of books, serials, clippings and off-prints … As personal collections shift from paper and analogue formats to hybrid and increasingly digital formats, personal digital collections are emerging.”

New collection technologies raise new issues. Will the data format become obsolete and irretrievable? Will your hard drive crash and wipe out a lifetime of memories? “It is telling,” writes Beagrie, “that research on digital data loss has suggested that a substantial amount of personal data is not backed up and that, on average, 6% of data held on all PCs is lost each year (more for laptops and mobile devices because of the higher incidence of theft).” That made me wonder, how big is the opportunity for a backup industry, and is it possibly something that could evolve on a cottage or neighborhood scale, or is this a market that the Googles and Yahoos of this world have already staked out. (In a note of regional pride, I would point out that Neal calls the Northern California startup,, “the first … service to explicitly offer long-term preservation as well as hosting services for personal and community content.”)

Okay, so you find storage and backup boring. How about what happens when a person dies without divulging the password to a database, as occurred when a Norwegian archivist went to that great data farm in the sky without letting anyone know how to get into a digital collection representing four years’ work. “The case achieved world-wide publicity after … (authorities) … made an international appeal for hackers to help identify the password,” Neal writes. “It only took hackers five hours to crack the code and unlock access to the database.” (Of course, given the international attention, you knew this already. Here in San Francisco, the episode briefly drove the Michael Jackson trial off the front pages.)

The essay also acquainted me with the concept of a “Generation C,'” that cohort of young people who take it as a God-given fact that people were created with portable communication devices that also snap pictures. (I remember one time, several years back, taking my second child, now 12, to a movie theatre, and having him tap me on the shoulder to ask if I could pause the screen and take him to the loo, aka potty.)

In any event, do read the original which is full of useful information, and sans the colonial snarkiness. I found the essay fasciating because I’ve been trying to convince myself that the “business” in new media is the manipulation and manufacturing of content — not merely its delivery via broadband, an opportunity beyond the reach of Mini Media types anyway. I have thought the prime opportunity in this regard will be the creation of media artifacts. Neal’s essay dwelled more on the software and network-level implications of this digital shoebox phenomenon. It may be that the physical expression and the electronic accessibility of digital memorabilia will represent business opportunities of equal magnitude. But lest this difference cause any further friction between the English-speaking peoples (there is that whole Blair memo), let me concede in advance that, of course Neal knows better. He’s British.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media