connect the clues! exploring a personal archiving workshop

In April I organized  a personal digital archiving workshop for the MIT Libraries IAPril period and Preservation Week. The events were open to the MIT community and visitors. A mix of participants from across the community and visitors from Simmons GSLIS attended. The basis of the workshop comes from the Find the Person in the Personal Digital Archive murder mystery activity from the Society of Georgia Archivists, ARMA Atlanta and Georgia Library Association (hereafter the SGA workshop). Kari learned about the SGA workshop through a post on The Signal and we’ve been looking for an chance to try it out. The workshop is great because it provides an opportunity to share personal digital archiving guidance and a chance to discuss the role of digital archives at MIT Libraries to the broader community.

Screenshot of the workshop handout that provided a few high level strategies for getting started with personal archiving

Screenshot of the workshop handout that provided a few high level strategies for getting started with personal archiving

The SGA workshop is a murder mystery activity that provides participants with a USB drive containing files put together by the workshop organizers. The scenario is that the USB was found at the scene of a crime and the participants must explore it to learn about the crime and the person who lost the USB drive. The file set contains password protected content, obsolete formats, and is totally unorganized with file names and dates that don’t make sense. The SGA materials include the set of files, activity handouts and a presentation on personal digital archiving. All materials are available on the SGA website.

I love this activity – but we decided to remix the materials and create a genealogy example instead of the murder mystery (see workshop details below). This involved writing a new scenario, editing some of the activity prompts and reworking some of the discussion questions. We used the file set from SGA, but I renamed it “Jean old computer” and added a link to a defunct blogging platform ( to try to incorporate social media issues into the mix of photos, documents, and other digital files. 

I also wanted to try my hand at inquiry based learning and so led with the activity rather than a presentation. I wanted participants to dive in and try to explore the contents without having any digital preservation or archiving concepts in mind. In preparation for the event, Kari and I also talked about how archivists often have limited time to review collections before having to offer up a summary of the contents. So, we limited time for exploration of the 100+ files to 15 minutes. Following this 15 minutes, participants paired off for small group discussion. The activity was followed by a presentation during which I circled back to the small group discussion questions, asked for groups to share on the activity experience, talked about the differences and similarities between digital archiving for individuals and institutions, and provided a high level overview of strategies to get started with personal digital archiving. We covered a lot!

I think that leading with the activity and small group discussion really worked well. In both workshops, participants’ reflection on the activity anticipated much of what was covered in the presentation and allowed the presentation to be interactive.

USBs in mini Hollinger

USBs in mini Hollinger box

The Details:

Learning Objectives: Participants should have increased awareness of digital preservation, Participants should have increased awareness of the role and challenges of digital archiving

Methods: PDA Activity, presentation, group discussion and take-away handout

Event Title: Connect the Clues! Exploring Personal Digital Archives

Activity Scenario: Imagine that it’s the year 2025 and you’ve recently decided to begin preserving your family history. As a result, many family members have been sending you a variety of materials. In one particular box, once belonging to a distant relative, you have just discovered this USB drive. You didn’t know this relative well and you cannot contact her about the materials.  Your family is coming over for dinner tonight and they are eager to learn more about her! Plug the USB drive into the computer and explore the personal archive of digital content. Feel free to open files and follow links. You have only 15 minutes to explore the contents.

Set-up: 90 minute session, capped at 15 registrants, library computer lab space reserved

Supplies: Set of files for the fake personal archive, computer lab or space for laptops, 10 USB drives, strategies handout, activity questions, 20-25 minute presentation

Marketing: Handled by other libraries staff organizing IAPril and Preservation Week. Plus some additional Tweets.

Marketing Description: Imagine that it’s the year 2025 and you’ve recently begun preserving your family history. While sorting through photo albums and books, you’ve discovered a USB drive belonging to a distant relative. Now what?! Join us for this hands-on workshop to explore the files on this intriguing USB drive and learn about evaluating and preserving personal archives of digital content.

Odds and Ends:

  • Make sure to have a USB for each person. This might require putting a cap on registrations. Participants should discuss with each other, but we found people preferred to have control and look through the files individually.
  • Leading with the activity works! The presentation should come second and group discussion/reflection should be worked into the presentation.
  • Students are really busy in April, especially during preservation week (hello, finals), so this might not be the best time frame for connecting with students. Holding this activity during MIT IAP session in January may be a better time for the MIT community.
  • Understandably, people really want specific strategies — take these questions as they come up, but don’t try to do it all in one short workshop. Pick learning objectives and tailor the workshop accordingly. There is so much involved in managing, archiving and preserving personal content that advice needs to be broken up over a series of workshops or guidance materials. Start high level, provide a helpful handout, and then try a series of more focused workshops (e.g. photos or social media accounts). This is our plan here at MIT Archives. Additionally, we have library colleagues who also provide similar kinds of advice and workshops on the active phase of content management, so we need to coordinate with them as well.
  • Co-teach – having two archivists on hand to answer the specific questions is really helpful. As I said, there is just so much to know!

Note: our handouts and set of files will be available via the Engineering the Future of the Past blog soon.

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