Monday, January 10, 2011

Preserving our Digital Legacy

In my recent post "Confronting Tragedy in The Age of Social Media",  I discussed the possibility that our blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, may some day become our opuses, ensuring that our voices will continue to be heard, in perpetuity, by future generations to come.  

I want to revisit that assertion,  and highlight a fundamentally flawed assumption in my thinking that our digital selves will have an infinite life.  In fact, this is only true, so long as our relatives deign to keep access to our online persona available for public consumption, and that whatever corporate entity is hosting our digital selves, remains in business, and has a financial interest in keeping access to our accounts open and free.  

Now that's a lot of what-if's to think about and it causes me to pose an extremely important question:  

What will really happen to our blogs etc., once we are gone ?

Indeed, it's a question that constantly haunts Gudrun Kemper, a regular reader from Germany, whom I've had the pleasure of virtually meeting via this blog.  Gudrun, an extremely accomplished woman and one of the founders of Breast Cancer Action Germany, is also a librarian, a published author of  "Jede Neunte" (Each Ninth), a book detailing and recording the breast cancer experiences of twenty-eight German women at the beginning of this century,  a member of the board in Arbeitskreis Frauengesundheit (Working Group Women Health, the independent women health organization in Germany) and a member of Netzwerk Frauengesundheit Berlin (Berlin Women Health Network).

Gudrun wonders what will happen to all of our blogs when we are gone without a permanent guaranteed home.  In Gudrun's view, the online world is now where history is being written, and this is particularly true in the way that women now go about recording their cancer experiences.  There is a vast volume of material out there in cyber-space being written everyday, that represents an important piece of the collective cancer experience and memory, and we are in real danger of losing all of it, if we don't pay more attention to this digital preservation question now.

By sheer coincidence, as Gudrun and I were discussing this very issue of digital archiving over the email this past week, the New York Times ran a feature article over the weekend called "Things To Do In Cyberspace When You're Dead"by Rob Walker, who raises concerns over what happens to our digital persona and body of work after we have gone.
"By and large, the major companies that enable our Web-articulated selves have vague policies about the fate of our digital after-lives, or no policies at all"
The article notes further that;
"But increasingly we're not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future.  Instead we are collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff:...."
Gudrun worries that if we leave the responsibility of archiving our blogs to the mercy of commercial corporate web hosting services, we may find our blogs housed in an on-line repository exploited by advertisers for things like oncology drugs, pink-ribbon paraphernalia or other cancer-related services and merchandise.  An abhorrent nightmare for many cancer bloggers, including this one, who often rail about the evils of the profit-seeking opportunists who feed off the cancer industry.

What we need and what is echoed in the New York Times article by pioneering blogger, Dave Winer, who terms this issue of online content preservation as "future-safing" is;
"an endowment, a foundation with a long-term charter, that can take over the administration of a Web presence as a trust - before the author dies."
In the U.S. this kind of a place might look like The Library of Congress which has been active in creating web archives around specific events (click here to see current web archive projects), although the collection is clearly in its infancy.   Another possible candidate may be an organization like Internet Archive, an American non-profit that was founded with the sole purpose of building an Internet library, and also has begun to post web archive collections.  Or would the National Women's History Museum be interested in preserving our voices ?  Clearly the problems that each of these institutions face in making web content preservation a priority are the huge volumes of global content that currently exist, and the commensurate funding and resources needed to make this kind of preservation work feasible.  But at least it's a start.

Think about it this way.  If every letter and every story that was ever written about breast cancer in the 1700's was preserved and available to be read, would you be interested in such a collection?  Would you think it important to save those women's records from three hundred years ago?  Fast forward to two hundred years from now, and I'll wager that our blogs become as important as those 18th century letters and stories.

So what can we do about this?  Gudrun and I would like to put this question out to you in the online community.  What do you think?  Have you heard of any projects aimed at preserving our cancer blogs? What would such a global online cancer blog repository look like?  What would be some of the important features? Accessible by anyone? Searchable by cancer-type, by country, by symptoms, by issue?  Who should have responsibility for housing this digital warehouse?  Should we trust such an endeavor to commercial concerns, or should it only be housed by a non-profit organization? Where would the funding come from?

Obviously there are many, many questions to think about, in positing such a lofty project, but I would like to thank and congratulate Gudrun for being the "Big-Thinker" with this issue.  It's not something that I'd ever considered, but since talking to her, I realize the importance of this question of preserving our digital legacy, and that there is no time to waste.  We must take responsibility for this now if we are to ensure that our voices will continue to be heard.

Please do take a couple of minutes to share your thoughts on this important issue.  What do you think?


  1. This is a crucial question, not only in preserving the narratives but in supporting the validity of the medium for producing new knowledge. I know of no archive or repository like this. I'll be interested to know what others think about it.

  2. Gayle thanks for taking the time to comment. I think we are certainly in a new frontier with this question of digital preservation, and Gudrun is absolutely right in raising her concerns. Unless we act now, we stand to lose these valuable narratives and I think history will be poorer for it. Surely one of the libraries, universities or women's history museusms would be interested in such an archive?

  3. Anna, well done. I never thought of the blogs as history, but it makes sense. In some ways, the blogs are just like diaries, at least that's how I see mine, but I never gave much thought to what happens after the fact. You're right, a collection of this magnitude would be an amazing resource, mind-boggling actually. I wish I had more of an answer, but you've certainly given me much to think about. Thanks.

  4. Testing, one, two, three, computer, Anna, which may be the issue of why I haven't been able to leave a comment. Let's see if this goes through, illustrating another facet of the whole digital age we live in!

  5. Really interesting question Anna. Like Stacey I also never thought of blogs as history... but they are.
    A very forthright blog by a UK woman, JaneRA, has been 'preserved' after her death by kindly being hosted by the forum BCPals, which is where we met:
    I can remember at the time of Jane's death hoping that her words would somehow be kept for other women to read, as you say, they will continue to be important to others.
    And, do we have to keep them as digital blogs? A number of 'blog to book' services are emerging and that's a way an individual can keep their words alive in the future for friends and family.
    I realise both of these are very small steps and don't give a 'big picture' solution for the masses of digital legacy out there - it's a big question indeed. I think maybe it needs something like a university to take this on? I will be interested to hear Gudrun's suggestions for this. Thank you for raising the question.

  6. Anna, Wow this makes me stop and think. When I started blogging, I didn't think anybody would care what I had to say, much less if it should be "preserved." When you asked, would you want to read stuff from the 1700's written by women with breast cancer?, I immediately thought, YES! That put everything in a whole different light. This is truly something to ponder about.

  7. Sarah - I think you are right in that some digital preservation efforts are happening but at a very grassroots level. There seems to be no integrated effortand this is what worries Gudrun and I. I think the time is now, but who would be interested in undertaking such a massive effort?

    Nancy and Stacey - I'd never thought about this either until I started talking to Gudrun. But I don't think we can underestimate the importance of this issue. There is much to ponder.

  8. By the way in looking to preserve our social media forays on an individual basis, JodyMS sent me this very useful link, with instructions on how to go about safeguarding our digital assets.

  9. Nice blog!!! And good thought too!! I love the blog!!

  10. It's really nice to see the blog so active and updating with thought provoking articles!!


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