A Report Back from Personal Digital Archiving 2017

Post by Charlie Macquarie, UCSF Archives Digital Archivist

I spent most of last week down the peninsula for the convening of the Personal Digital Archiving (PDA) conference, now in its 7th year, and left with some fascinating thoughts and conversations in my mind. PDA “seeks to host a discussion across domains focusing on how to best manage personal digital material, be it at a large institution or in a home office.” As a result of this focus, it also ends up playing host to all kinds of fascinating new practices and approaches to collecting, preserving, providing access to, and even thinking about personal digital information.

archivists use smart phones to photograph an 8 inch floppy disk reader.

A moment from the Born-Digital Archiving pre-PDA meetup, where archivists hover around a computer built to read 8 inch floppy disks — an almost impossible task these days

The conference covered a huge range of work, and included presentations on different ways to conceptualize digital space (screenshots, video game emulations, the list goes on), projects seeking to allow communities to directly transfer their digital materials to a library collection through apps or interfaces, and even a fascinating assessment of the way that teens store and access information about their personal finances (including the clincher that almost all ages show a tendency to simply discard financial information after a stated financial goal has been reached). Also included were some updates on the sustainability (or lack of it) of some of the field’s pioneering digital archives projects, like the Salman Rushdie papers at Emory University (hint, it’s still people, not machines, that are making it run).

Some presentations particularly interesting to a health sciences institution like our own were those on the self-collection and assessment of health and other biometric data espoused by the Quantified Self movement. Quantified Self is a loosely-organized group who collect and store data about themselves, and then use various computational and creative methods to analyze that data  for self-insights framed as citizen science.

A slide shows in a darkened room as a person gives a presentation on "QS" or Quantified Self.

Gary Wolf gives the keynote on the Quantified Self movement.

Quantified Self (the formal organization) has just embarked on its first experiment to facilitate participants testing and analyzing their own blood, which has brought up a host of questions on the ethics of collecting and making public one’s own health data. Additionally, the project raises questions about the freedoms and constraints that tend to coalesce around these projects of “do it yourself” self-quantification (not to mention the often neglected questions around power and privilege that tinge the conversation around collection of, access to, and work with self-referential data). The approach taken by quantified self practitioners is surely different than ours here in the archives, but we still face similar issues as archivists in a health-sciences university, where historical information mixes with personal narrative and private health data – both in the legal sense and the intimate emotional sense as well.

This forum was a fascinating opportunity to dig a bit deeper into the ideologies and practices behind the collection and preservation of personal digital material, and it seemed fitting that these questions were being explored in dialogue with all the people in the room. One of the biggest takeaways from the conference, after all, was that the tools and technologies to facilitate this work are often the focus of the intrigue and excitement, but that it’s the people who dedicate their time and resources to the endeavor that keep the whole thing running. Just as the Salman Rushdie Digital Collection requires the work of a cadre of dedicated digital archivists at Emory, the future of our digital past will require serious work by a broad and diverse community of archivists, technologists, historians, fanatics, and citizens.

One of the final audience comments was prescient in this regard: “it seems like what might be missing is a discussion of privilege in these projects.” Indeed, any community of practice is unlikely to persist for long if it doesn’t contain a diversity of interests.

WWI Exhibit Opening Soon

Save the date for the upcoming UCSF Archives exhibit: a Centennial Commemoration of WWI featuring UCSF’s role in the Great War, April 12, 2017 – April 2018 on the main floor of the UCSF Library at Parnassus.

Recruitment poster.

The exhibit recognizes the service of UCSF doctors, nurses and dentists at Base Hospital No. 30 in Royat, France. It also highlights the war-related research and care provided by UCSF scientists and healthcare providers in San Francisco.

Base Hospital No. 30 nurses.

The exhibit is free and open to the public during Library hours. Hosted by UCSF Archives and Special Collections and the History of Health Sciences Graduate Program, UCSF Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine.

Archives Talk 3/3/17: The History of Higher Education in California: A Big Data Approach

UCSF School of Medicine class of 1964

Date: Friday, March 3rd, 2017
Time: 12 pm – 1:15 pm
Lecturer: Zach Bleemer (UCB)
Location: Lange Room, 5th Floor, UCSF Library – Parnassus
530 Parnassus Ave, SF, CA 94143

This event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be provided.
REGISTRATION REQUIRED: http://calendars.library.ucsf.edu/event/2941746

In his talk at the UCSF Archives & Special Collections, Zach Bleemer will discuss how he has used data science – thousands of computer-processed versions of annual registers, directories, and catalogs –  to reconstruct a near-complete database of all students, faculty, and courses at four-year universities in California in the first half of the 20th century, including UC San Francisco (which taught both undergraduates and graduate students at the time). Visualizations of this database display the expansion of higher education into rural California communities, the rise and fall of various academic departments and disciplines, and the slow (and still-incomplete) transition towards egalitarian major selection.

Zach will also discuss his recent CSHE Working Paper, in which he uses additional digitized records to analyze the social impact of the early 20th century’s expansion of female high school science teachers and female doctors across rural California communities. He finds that newly-arrived female STEM professionals serve as important role models for young women in these rural communities, causing substantial increases in female college-going. However, these young women are no more likely to study STEM fields or become doctors themselves.

Zach Bleemer

Zach Bleemer

Zach Bleemer is a PhD student in Economics and Digital Humanities Fellow at UC Berkeley, where his research examines the educational and occupational decisions of young Americans. He has previously held senior research analyst positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Mathematica Policy Research, and has published working papers on student debt, parental coresidence, and university attendance. He is also currently a Research Associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education and a Visiting Scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

UCSF Archives & Special Collections launched this lecture series to introduce a wider community to treasures and collections from its holdings, to provide an opportunity for researchers to discuss how they use this material, and to celebrate clinicians, scientists, and health care professionals who donated their papers to the archives.