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.