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How to manage your digital life

By Lynne Raughley

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

Active intervention

“Digital archiving” might sound like something best left to trained professionals, but with so much of our lives online — photos, videos, financial records, audio recordings, creative projects — we’re all engaged in it these days, if only by neglect.

To help people become more purposeful about the organization and preservation of their digital lives, Scott Witmer, digital preservation specialist at the library, created a Guide to Digital Archiving that’s grounded in the methods used by professional archivists and digital preservationists, and adapted for the non-experts among us.

“We record our personal experiences and life events digitally on computers, phones, and other electronic devices,” Witmer says. “But unlike physical records, which can be stored and preserved over time with fairly little effort, digital materials require ongoing active intervention to remain accessible.”

Without a plan, Witmer explains, all of your digital content is vulnerable to computer crashes, changes in hardware and software, and to getting buried under the overwhelming number of items that many of us generate.

Getting started

The guide offers a low-key and reassuring introduction, acknowledging that “each person uses their digital stuff in different ways” and reminding us that even “a small effort to preserve your digital materials is better than doing nothing.”

The guide’s five-step process — select, gather, organize, backup, maintain — provides a framework that anyone can follow, and sits alongside an overview of important concepts in digital archiving, as well as more detailed information about managing various kinds of formats, file storage options, and more.

“It’s a good idea to keep digital preservation in mind as you create new digital files,” Witmer suggests.

Witmer, who joined the U-M Library back in 2017, has conducted workshops and popup events to encourage people to take a more thoughtful approach to managing their digital lives. He published the guide last May — not long after a scheduled event at the Ann Arbor District Library was canceled due to the pandemic — hoping to offer a rewarding, home-based project during these housebound times.