Personal Archives Approach

Personal archives are not often mentioned or addressed in archival theory, as many archives collect organizational or government documents (Hobbs, 2001).  Furthermore the contents of personal archives are often individual in nature, and therefore not always immediately accessible by archivists or designed for archivist’s care.  Personal archives often function as a connection between surviving and archiving, and thereby developing meaning for individuals’ journeys and lives (Cox, 2008).  At the rate at which individuals are generating and storing information, and also due to the plethora of file formats in which this information is saved, there is a continual danger that items of personal, family or cultural memory may be lost (Wiliams et al, 2008).  Conversely there is also a need to establish the importance of certain items of personal records (Barratt, 2009).

For the purposes of this webpage, personal archiving is considered as one small-scale approach for a community institution to archive their own collection.  Because personal archiving could in scope be similar to community archiving, the distinction between these two approaches is made in the level of access; i.e. who is meant to retrieve the documents.  A community archive in this sense would likely be open to the public, whereas a personal archive might be a dark archive, only available to a small population such as the library or archive staff.  This distinction should be parallel to the function of many personal archives, as most individuals preserving their own collections are not sharing them with the broader public, rather documenting their own history.

One example of an initiative to chronicle a life digitally is displayed in the Microsoft initiative of Gordon Bell, who created “MyLifeBits” and moved all his records to digital form, tagging them with metadata to allow for database searching (Bell, G. and Gemmell, J., 2007).  Most individuals creating personal archives, however, are not this painstaking and thorough in their approach.  Marshall et al (2006) studied the personal archiving habits of twelve participants and determined that the common ways that personal backups were completed included system backups; moving files from one computer to another; saving on removable drives, CDs, DVDs; using email attachments for storage and retention; keeping and maintaining old computers as a means of accessing old data; and saving data in multiple copies in multiple locations. Similarly, Marshall (2008) defines six strategies used by participants in a study for personal digital archiving:  (1) system backups, (2) a documents folder that moves from computer to computer, (3) saving important files to external storage media, (4) using online and free email platforms with attachments to create archives, (5) storing photos and videos on social media sites and (6) saving the hardware long-term.   While many of these options used by current individuals are valid ways to approach personal archiving, individuals should be aware and concerned with reliance on corporate entities for archiving any data, as these companies may have economic difficulties or change strategic focus and the data could thereby be lost.  The same applies for saving items in uncommon proprietary file formats (Reuben, 2003).

Marshall (2008) proposes that determining an item’s value is important in the personal archiving approach, specifically by defining the source, actions and disposition.  Selecting what is necessary or of value to preserve may be difficult, however will make the personal archive more manageable over the long-term.  Furthermore, establishing a catalog of digital objects will ensure that scope is not lost, and assist with making the digital collection more controllable (Marshall, 2008).

Based on some of the consulted literature above, the following steps or considerations may be included if you choose to archive your community institutions’ digital objects with a personal archives approach:

  • Selection and appraisal: Determine the items of the most value to your collection, especially items that you consider to have enduring value to the community as a whole.  Consulting multiple parties in this process will help to ensure that the collection is well represented.
  • Define a strategy for reducing risk:  Using some of the strategies listed by Marshall above (2008) may be a first step in ensuring that digital objects remain accessible.  Recommended would be a combination of these strategies so that if one system fails, another will still have the content, e.g. migrating My Documents to new computers while also making CD or DVD copies of data on external media.  Also, refer to such websites as the Library of Congress’ section on Personal Archiving for suggestions for preserving your digital collections.
  • Create a catalog of what you have in digital form:  While not every person maintaining a digital collection will be a librarian, keeping a catalog of your digital belongings, whether in a cataloging system, or even in an excel sheet, will ensure that some information regarding the content is accessible.  In more advanced systems, generating full-blown metadata may help with access and discovery. At the very least, some kind of list of the digital belongings will assist future caretakers and/or archivists.


Barratt, Nick.  (2009).  From Memory to Digital Record: Personal Heritage and Archive Use in the Twenty-First Century.  Records Management Journal 19(1), 8-15.

Bell, G., & Gemmell, J. (2007). A Digital Life. Scientific American 296(3), 58-65.

Cox, Richard J. (2008).  Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling.  Duluth, Minnesota: Litwin Books.

Hobbs, Catherine.  (2001).  Personal archives: The character of personal archives: reflections on the value of records of individuals.  Archivaria 52: 126-135.

Marshall, C.C., Bly, S., and Brun-Cottan, F. (2006).  The long term fate of our personal digital belongings:  Toward a service model for personal archives.  Proceedings of Archiving 2006.  (Ottawa, Canada, May 23-26, 2006), Society for Imaging Science and Technology, Springfield, VA, 2006: 25-30.

Marshall, C. C. (2008). Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, Part 1. D-Lib Magazine 14(3/4), 1. doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt1

Marshall, C. C. (2008). Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving Part 2. D-Lib Magazine 14(3/4), 1. doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt2

Reuben, E. (2003). Migrating Records from Proprietary Software to RTF, HTML, and XML. Computers in Libraries 23(6), 30-3.

Williams, P., John, J., & Rowland, I. (2009). The personal curation of digital objects: A lifecycle approach. Aslib Proceedings 61(4), 340-363. doi:10.1108/00012530910973767

Further Reading:

Carter, E. J. (2010). The Death of Correspondence? Interpersonal Communication and Special Collections in the Digital Age. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage 11(2), 91-105.

Cushing, A. L. (2010). Highlighting the archives perspective in the personal digital archiving discussion. Library Hi Tech 28(2), 301-312. doi:10.1108/07378831011047695

Davies, Julia. (2007, December).  Display, identity and the everyday: Self-presentation through online image sharing.  Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education 28(4): 549-564.

Hobbs, Catherine.  (2010).  “Reenvisioning the Personal: Reframing Traces of Individual Life.” pp. 213-241 in Currents of Archival Thinking, Terry Eastwood and Heather MacNeil, eds. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Kirk, David S. and Sellen, Abigail.  (2010).  On human remains: values and practices in the home archiving of cherished objects.  ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 17(3), Article 10,

Library of Congress.  (2010).  Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories.  Retrieved on May 30, 2011, from

Murray, Susan. (2008).  Digital images, photo-sharing, and our shifting notions of everyday aesthetics, Journal of Visual Culture 7(2): 147-163.

Pollard, Riva A. (2001).  The appraisal of personal papers: A critical literature review. Archivaria 52: 136-150.

Sample, M. (2010). Archiving Twitter on Your Own Server. Chronicle of Higher Education 57(11): A17.

Smith, J. A., & Nelson, M. L. (2008). Creating Preservation-Ready Web Resources. D-Lib Magazine 14(1/2): 46.

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