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Digital Lives | 2008 - 2018

10 years ago, the British Library (and a bunch of other UK institutions) did a huge project called the Digital Lives Research Project.

The aim was to understand how people accumulated digital stuff. What did do with it, and did they want to happen to it in the future. As part of the research, they did a set of interviews; you can read their findings here.

In 2008

Digital Lives found that:

- most people's IT skills were self-taught

- people accumulate a lot of digital data inadvertently

- most people preferred to store their material in folder structures (as opposed to relying on Search). This was because the structure conveys extra information about the context of files.

- many people were using digital collections as a back-up for hard-copy archives

People have many distinct styles of living out their digital lives. The project found that the styles pivoted around four variables:

1. how and where people stored their stuff

2. How familiar or experienced a person is with the hardware and software they were using

3. What the individual's understanding is of a "personal digital collection", and what they included in that category

4. Personal feelings about what is worth keeping / valuable / potentially useful

5. The value of digital possessions, compared to non-digital possessions


I find point 5 particularly interesting.

Say I came across an old box tucked away in a cupboard, I open the lid and take a peek inside to find:

Scenario A: a scrapbook from 10 years ago. It is full of photos, ticket stubs and ephemera.

Scenario B: a box of floppy discs, perhaps with labels, perhaps not.

In both scenarios,

a) the creator has collected the stuff

b) she put the stuff there on purpose

c) she put it to one side to keep it safe

But my reaction to both boxes is totally different.

Instinctive Reaction A: oh look, she's must really care about this stuff - she has gone to all that effort to scrapbook it

Instinctive Reaction B: well, that stuff can't be very important; she hasn't even bothered to migrate it.

But what if the floppy disks in Scenario B are someone's entire life's work? And let's be real: if the stuff in Scenario A weren't stuck into a scrapbook, it would basically just be litter!

I have often thought that physical things have this aura around them. An "oooh, this is old, and someone once put time into creating this. It must be worth looking, now that it has lasted this long" aura. And the aura essentially makes sure the thing has a future.

Digital treasure does not have this magic, free-pass aura at all. And benign neglect isn't going to work either.

*pauses to go through the above thought process*

Actual Reaction A: cares for the stuff to make it last.

Actual Reaction B: cares for the stuff to make it last.


If this has made you think about the digital treasures that you truly value, then have a look at my article on How To Start Your Digital Archive.

How do different do our digital lives look in 2018? I certainly don't think we are treating digital copies as back ups for hard-copy work any more! We're much more likely to consider the digital version the original/master version.

If you enjoyed this article, there is more coming in this Deep Dive into Personal Archiving Series.

Previous Article: Records Connect People

If you would like to have an email round-up once a month with all my new content, then pop your email in the box at the bottom of the page. (And I will also send you a free copy of my How To Start Your Personal Archive Workbook).

Thanks for reading! :)

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