I am Janel Kinlaw, a librarian at NPR, and I’ll be answering your questions about preserving old technology with Trevor Muñoz, an associate director at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

It’s a brave new world as many collections move from being majority physical to digital -- and it raises questions for family historians and biographers/archivists alike.

All Tech Considered The New Age: Leaving Behind Everything, Or Nothing At All

Where before older generations might have left behind physical letters, photographs and journals, much of that is expressed digitally now. And although it’s digitized, the hardware will certainly become antiquated; even if something is left in the cloud, we might not be able to access it.

So will we save and treasure our parents' hard drives like we did our grandparents' letters? Will we continue to copy our VHS home movies to DVDs and so on? And if we want to hold on to those things, what’s the best approach?

We can answer all your practical and philosophical questions about maintaining a digital archive. Ask away!


Update 4:03 pm ET - Thanks for the questions. We enjoyed talking with everyone! You can follow us at NPR Library & Trevor Munoz.


Janel Kinlaw is a librarian at NPR where she has catalogued thousands of NPR stories, answered reference questions, and led a successful project to launch a new search and editing interface for NPR's programming archives.

Trevor Muñoz is the assistant dean for Digital Humanities Research at the University of Maryland Libraries and an associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). At Maryland, he works with scholars, archivists, and technologists to preserve collections of born-digital material such as old computer files, software programs, and web pages.

Comments: 128 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

sdbacon6 karma

I am contemplating a project where I store images from Instagram as a sort-of user-generated archival collection for our university library. I plan to fork the code of the My #HuntLibrary app from NCSU to accomplish this.

This makes me wonder how future users will think about these items as they relate to Instagram, an app which may not exist even a decade from now. How do I represent what Instagram is/was in an archival collection? The photos will speak for themselves in many respects, but the user experience will not be the same.

I wonder if you could talk about this and other related issues, such as CD-ROM emulation, computer game archiving, preservation of software...

jcwlib2 karma

Providing context for the materials within an archive as well as preserving the content is important. Perhaps describing what the app did in the metadata for an record can help future users understand the context of the content.

eli_brarian5 karma

Janel, what was your educational/career path that lead to your position at NPR? I'm a public librarian and an obsessive NPR fangirl - your job pretty much sounds like my dream job. How does one become an NPR Librarian?!

jcwlib2 karma

Thanks for the question! I was fortunate to get a internship with the music librarian and that's how I joined NPR. I decided to get my library degree because the library was one of my favorite places as a child. It turns out that library science was a good fit for my interests.

CurlingFlowerSpace4 karma

I'm graduating from library school in December. Janel, how did you land what I can only assume is the coolest job ever? :D

And to ask a question related to archiving: is there any talk of archiving live-feed events by mimicking the pauses between posts or updates? If it's presented all at once, the reader can view it at their own pace. If they're forced to wait (like people would have been when the feed was truly live), it would add an element of suspense or tension that wouldn't be the same if it were available in one fell swoop.

jcwlib2 karma

Thanks for the question! I was an intern for the NPR Library initially learning about music reference and then moved into cataloging and general reference. Internships are a good way to get your foot into the door here at NPR.

I'm not familiar with talk of archiving live-feed events, but I can see how that medium would provide an interesting challenge. Do you see archiving live-feed events any different that archiving a webinar perhaps?

CurlingFlowerSpace1 karma

I think where it would differ is that these types of large news events would be difficult to capture—questions of what truly matters and how far to condense wide-spanning events in order to make the experience feasible.

It would be interesting to see if we as a society develop archival methods for online information experiences, like being on Twitter and watching thousands of messages go past and new information slowly trickle in. So many news sites have chronological updates on developing stories, but of course they put the newest stuff at the top, so being there for each new bit isn't quite the same as if you read the latest update at the end of the day.

jcwlib1 karma

So kinda like a Storify type platform - where you capture the interactions along with the actual media? I like the thought of creating a tool that allows us to archive experiences.

WUWFLindsay4 karma

after archiving everything at work do you find yourself being a minimalst and jettisoning things at home?

jcwlib1 karma

I would say that my personal archiving is influenced by my "professional" archiving. I've learned what are the recommended practices through my day job and try to apply that at home as I can.

in00tj3 karma

what is your favorite old tech that you have preserved?

p.s. I love npr, especially Story Corps

jcwlib3 karma

One of my favorite older NPR stories is the coverage of the Vietnam War protests that aired on the first broadcast in May 1971. You are transported back to the busy and crowded streets in DC instantly.

lojaff3 karma

With more media organizations using third party hosting like SoundCloud, Vimeo, YouTube, Scribd etc., often using a combination of these media embedded in a particular story, how does that change the procedure of digital archiving? What should media organizations consider when choosing which platforms to use, if archiving is a priority? Risks/benefits? Thank you!

jcwlib1 karma

I think it's important to make sure whatever technology you are using you have procedures in place to recover files if the access copy somehow is lost or deleted. It is also important to determine what are your user expectations if they cannot access that digital file that they are requesting. Can they wait a day or two? Can they wait a week?

IamDonqey3 karma

Ok, serious question after my last fanboy comment. I have decided to print all the important digital photos and I have a double back-up of all digital photos (after I managed to lose some precious ones).

How do I ensure that the few digital videos I have will last for the next 30-40 years?

I have currently uploaded some of them as private on Youtube just to be safe.

jcwlib2 karma

curio1263 karma

Your timing has worked out so well for me, thank you both so much for doing this. I'm currently working on my masters thesis about the ethics of 3D modeling in museums as digital conservation. I have two questions for you: 1: How do you decide what gets digitized? Any LAM organization of course has a vast amount to choose from, how do you decide where to start? Any material that gets preserved and added to a publicly accessible database has a much better chance of having a voice in academic research, so this has some long-term ethical implications. 2: What are your thoughts on multi-institution databases (ex: one website database for all LAMs in Boston)? This would have a huge benefit to users, but it can be difficult for some organizations to conceptualize having to compromise with a different group. Thanks so much for your time!

jcwlib1 karma

NPR is not actively digitizing older content, but we do digitize content on an ad-hoc basis as staff make requests for deep archival content. The digital files are linked back to metadata record for future reuse. For us we are digitizing whatever content is broadcast & produced by NPR.

Check out the SAA Basic Manual Series - Archives & Manuscripts: Law and look at the NARA Archival standards for guidance on determine what is archival or not.

Also you may consider prioritizing the parts of your collection that are on older formats.

KCRepertory3 karma

We're a regional theatre approaching our 50th Anniversary, and we've been working to digitize our collection of documents.

However, moving forward, we won't have a lot of paper documents to save! How do you recommend deciding on what data to keep/hoard and what not to bother with? Should we be saving every patron's instagram posts about the shows, for example?

jcwlib2 karma

Check out the SAA Basic Manual Series - Archives & Manuscripts: Law and look at the NARA Archival standards for guidance on determine what is archival or not

orphaleselibrarian2 karma

Also, what are the privacy concerns in relation to keeping a patron's Instagram posts about the shows? Must they consent to have their information saved?

jcwlib2 karma

While Instagram is not mentioned specifically, there are guidelines for Flickr in this NARA best practices document for Social Media collections http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/resources/socialmediacapture.pdf

_T_J_L_3 karma

I often hear archived interviews on NPR, unfortunately it seems most often when someone noteworthy passes away. Given the topic of this AMA, I'm curious if NPR retains these archives in the format they were collected in (tape here, vinyl here, .wavs over here) or are they periodically brought up to whatever the current modern standard is. I would guess the latter since physical storage space had changed so much (and will presumably continue to) but I like to imagine some sort of swiss army knife of audio equipment that you could drop an Edison wax phonograph cylinder into and get a FLAC file of Teddy Roosevelt.

jcwlib3 karma

Good question! Most of our collection is on CD (from 1984-2013) with these CD copies being created in the last 3-5 years. 1971-1983 are still on reel-to-reel tapes and we convert to digital files as requests come in. From May 2013 - present we only store digital files.

baiboi3 karma

Have you worked with any strange and rare formats? How would you deal with such things? Are there any formats you just don't have the means to work with?

jcwlib1 karma

We have many different formats in NPR's collection. We try to convert content to more updated formats as we can.

yacob_uk2 karma

We try to convert content to more updated formats as we can.

What conversions have you undertaken?

jcwlib2 karma

We mostly converted from reel-to-reel to CD for the NPR collection. We have done some conversion from DATS to CD and cassette to CD.

Typewriter_Ennui2 karma

As someone just starting in a combined MLS/MA in History program, what advice can you provide on landing a job in the evolving information and digital preservation field? What sorts of tech skills are necessary? What should an aspiring archivist do to ensure they have the rights sorts of skills & training to help be a leader in the profession?

jcwlib1 karma

My advice is to be willing to learn and explore new technologies and processes. Explore internships or fellowships to help determine what jobs are a good fit or not for you. Also saying "Yes" to volunteer opportunities or projects can help you move into a leadership role.

PhilFargo2 karma

How did you get into digital preservation? And what general life advice would you give to a college student?

InformaticMonad2 karma

I'm a digital archivist in California, and a new professional. Basically, I started asking questions and haven't stopped. Years ago as a philosophy undergrad, I became captivated by digital archives while in a work-study position at my University's Archives and Special Collections. I created an unpaid internship for myself through the philosophy department to research the topic further, and used that experience to score a Junior Fellowship at the Library of Congress. There, the people involved with the NDIIPP program and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance helped push my interests into overdrive. Now I have my masters in library and information science with specializations in archives and digital preservation, and I can laugh at the people who said I'd be unemployed with a philosophy degree. The philosophical issues my profession deals with are never ending!

jcwlib1 karma

Good for you for continuing to ask questions and learn about digital archives.

jcwlib1 karma

My advice is to be willing to learn and try out new things. Just doing a search on "digital preservation" on Twitter can help you see what folks are talking about on that topic.

jemtman2 karma

I come from the generation that has most of their childhood moments archived on the bevy of visual tape media like VHS, Hi-8, Digital 8, MiniDV, etc. Now that most of those devices are either at death's door or already dead, what are our options for archiving?

My parent's used a service licensed by Costco to do this a while back. Unfortunately, their end result was a DVD, which isn't all that much better, being a proprietary format that's hard to transcode and degrades over time. On top of that, there was some awful royalty free music on top of the silent sections.

Who does NPR use to transfer old visual tape formats to digital files? Or do you do it in-house?

jcwlib2 karma

The main part if our archival collection is only audio so we haven't done much video format conversions. This website might be helpful http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/

GreenStrong2 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. I'm a tech at a cultural institution, we are looking toward digitizing some of our older video formats in house, do any of you guys have any recommended vendors or repair techs for betacam or u-matic decks? We currently have those media, and no playback devices.

Since you have to "archive" playback devices as well as media, do you have any best practices for keeping analog electronics/ mechanical systems healthy?

jcwlib1 karma

We are fortunate at NPR to have engineers that help troubleshoot our archival playback devices when we have issues. I've been given the advice in regards to hard drives that you should boot them up once in while to make sure they still work.

kanji_sasahara2 karma

Are there any plans, theoretical or otherwise, in preserving Wikipedia in physical form? I know that there are ongoing projects, such as recaptcha, in translating the content, but haven't heard about creating a physical encyclopedia of Wikipedia.

jcwlib1 karma

Lynn Neary did a story on printing out Wikipedia just recently

lanekeys2 karma

My daughter, 14, wants to be a librarian. She plans to run a library 1980's-style. I fear such libraries will be obsolete by the time she attends college. What jobs will be available for her to use similar skills and still find joy? I need to help her see it differently.

jcwlib2 karma

Library Science/Information Science is a VERY flexible degree. There will always be a need to disseminate information. While some principles from the 80's will still be relevant the method that they applied will continue to change.

digi_pres_questions2 karma

How come I'm not able to listen to older radio stories on the NPR website? Lots of them are in real player? What's NPR's strategy for making their audio accessible?

jcwlib1 karma

We would love to post our archival content on the NPR website and are experimenting with an open sourcing this process.

Check out the NPRchives Tumblr for stories from 1984.

VividLotus1 karma

Do you feel that there is always value in preserving old hardware and/or storage media, or in general, do you feel that it's often a better option to simply focus on storing the data in question in the most up-to-date possible format?

Unrelated: do you have any advice for how to obtain digital copies of data from people who (understandably) don't want to part with the original, but aren't very tech-savvy? This is a common problem in genealogical research, and it's often a hard one to deal with. As an example of what I mean: I'm currently trying to gather every piece of information I possibly can about the town in Belarus from which my great-grandparents came, and time is of the essence (everyone who still remained in the town in 1941 was killed by Nazis, so any surviving individuals who escaped are obviously on the elderly side now). I will often receive information that someone has a photograph, letter, or other hard copy of a document that is relevant to this town-- but this person is elderly and doesn't know how to use a computer, doesn't have a smartphone or digital camera, etc. Edit: and often, the person's children or other relatives simply don't care at all about history or genealogy, so they aren't into the idea of helping. If you were in this situation, how would you handle it?

jcwlib2 karma

Good question! What do you want to do with the archival content? If you just want to preserve the content - keeping it on the original format is the best but also need to keep a working playback machine for that format. If the content will need to be accessed for research and/or reuse, you probably want to have it copied to a modern format.

Best of luck with your current project!

goshdurnit1 karma

Let's say you wanted to preserve some of your documents. You want them to remain private while you're alive but you want others to be able to access them after you die. The problem with password protection, as I see it, is that once you die, the password dies with you, and then others cannot access the documents easily. Is there an easy way to keep documents private until you die? What would you recommend?

jcwlib2 karma

Trevor pointed out this company to another participant who asked a similar question. http://www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/

mrm551 karma

Can you comment on best practices for archiving genealogy records? I have tons of boxes with paper, originals, bibles, photographs, cds, microfilm files and find it very difficult to find a good system. There are two reasons... since I have so much information, I would like to be able to search and find information efficiently, and if some library might want the files in the future, it would be great to have it in good indexed condition.

jcwlib1 karma

The Library of Congress' personal archiving website is a good place to start http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/

mozgert1 karma

Is there a story that you have in the archives that you just can't for the excuse/reason to recirculate?

Thank for what you do. As a student of digital libraries & archives I really appreciate it and hope to work with you both someday.

Also, Trevor — I read your blog posts on the role of libraries & DH (http://trevormunoz.com/notebook/2012/08/19/doing-dh-in-the-library.html) as required reading for my DH class, and it's really stuck with me in a positive way as I dip my toes into the world of DH and get excited about diving in. Is there anything you'd add to the post?

jcwlib1 karma

Most of our archival content can be reused which the exception of the early cultural programming. We work with our colleagues in the Legal department to research any rights questions we have.

TurboVerbal1 karma


jcwlib1 karma

Andrew - let's chat more.