Digital Youth and Digital Preservation

The Library of Congress recently posted this video of a workshop with teenagers discussing digital preservation. Today’s teenagers really have been “born digital.” Everything they deal with is digital or has some digital aspect to it. So what do teenagers think of all this “stuff”?

In some ways, they’re like their parents: they don’t agree on what should be saved, who is responsible for saving it, or even what the challenges are.

I was struck by the wide-ranging views. One young woman wanted to save all of Facebook. (“It’s our generations yearbook, our scrapbook.”) One young man said you can’t save everything, but maybe the “stuff” that people will learn from later for history — parts of presidential speeches, for example. She wanted to save the everyday; he wanted to save the exceptional.

It also occurred to me while watching this video that we have done a pretty poor job of explaining exactly how the Internet works and how digital files work. How often have we tried to admonish young people, “Once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever,” usually as a warning not to post pictures from last night’s kegger or last weekend’s jello-shot competition. But what has gotten lost in that message is that it isn’t truly forever by itself.

Unlike paper, which usually does quite well in a “benign neglect” environment, digital files must actively be maintained. Think of how many websites would be lost forever if they had not been captured by Brewster Kahle’s Wayback Machine. Consider, too, what it takes for those files to remain viable and available.

I can’t sit here and blame the teenagers for their state of confusion. They’re actually more aware than some adults I know. However, we’re all going to be in a big world o’ hurt if we — collectively and individually — don’t step up and actually do what we need to do to preserve our digital heritage.

Posted: February 22, 2011.

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    • Thanks, Bill. For all that we think of youth as being techno-savvy, they really don’t have quite the grasp on the topic as we think they do. I think the girl wanting to save all of Facebook and the boy wanting to save “what history will look at” really summarizes that part of the dilemma: What do we save? The family historian in me says, “Save everything!” The archivist in me says, “Save what’s important” and then asks “How do we determine what’s important?” Definitely no easy answers.

  • A subject near and dear to my heart! One that I struggle with daily after having “inherited” about 3 generations worth of “stuff”. Now, after having had to deal with all of the physical items, I wonder what is to come of all of our digital data. My children, now young adults are at the dawning of realizing the implications.

    The youngest (at 17) has to let her computer to go the shop for a repair. When I asked her what would (metaphorically) kill her if she were to lose some of her data, she answered, “My pictures. I like to look back on my pictures.” I seized the moment and set her up with an online backup service. She can see where another copy of her important pictures now live. Hopefully it will get her to thinking in the future about what is important to her and what steps she needs to preserve that data.

    • Michelle — what a way to recognize a “teachable moment”! As the unofficial tech support for several family members, I’ve heard over and over, “I don’t care what happens to anything else. Just save the pictures.”

      One thing that is amazing to me is how a 100-year-old photograph left in a shoebox in the closet has (overall) a better chance of surviving the next 100 years than many digital photos taken today. There must be a whole different mindset now. Preservation now has to be an active process, rather than a one-shot “put it someplace safe” method.