Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Digital graveyards

When I stop and think about how many different files and folders I have stored on my laptop, and my current portable external hard drive, and my first external hard drive, and my old computer, plus a couple small flash drives, I start to realize just how thinly my personal digital collections are spread and also (somewhat alarmingly) how little I know or remember about what exactly I have saved. Countless mp3 files, old movie trailers, school-related documents from high school on. Photos by the thousands, other image files scanned from hard copies or downloaded from the internet. Email correspondence, computer games, and who knows what else. I certainly don't.

My laptop is fairly new (a little more than a year old now) and so on a daily basis I'm not confronted with an overwhelming amount of saved and stored data. But that in itself says something about all the old files I have tucked away, decaying in various places. If I haven't transferred them onto my laptop, or needed to go out and find them, or even thought about them at all for the last year (or last many years), why do I still have them saved? Why did I save them in the first place? It's just not something I usually think about since I'm never actually in danger of running out of storage space.

Catherine Marshall writes about personal information saving habits and makes a few startling observations. More and more people seem to be relying on computer crashes and other technological failures as a way of weeding out their old files. She speculates that the time-consuming and "cognitively taxing" work of keeping files neat and periodically deleting old data makes us prone to a practice she refers to as "benign neglect." Essentially, it's "easier to keep than to cull" and "easier to lose than to maintain." Unfortunately my data-keeping habits seem to match Marshall's depiction pretty closely. And despite all my good intentions and plans to one day get things organized in a thorough digital spring cleaning, nothing actually seems to change.

Marshall, Catherine C. "Challenges and Opportunities for Personal Digital Archiving." In I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era, edited by Christopher A. Lee, 90-114. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists, 2011.

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