The Memory Lab | Technology in Focus

Led by the District of Columbia Public Library, libraries are helping patrons save their mementos—and learn the basics of digital preservation in the process

Led by DCPL, libraries are helping patrons save their mementos— and learn the basics of digital preservation in the process

Pictures on a phone. Journals on a hard drive. Videos shared on social media. It’s so easy and convenient to document and publish our lives digitally these days. Yet what happens when media formats become obsolete? Individuals and entire communities risk major losses of historical and cultural documentation. Unless, that is, the public is equipped to sustain digital memories by transitioning them to new formats. The District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) believes libraries should offer both the tools and knowledge needed to preserve these important and irreplaceable documents.

“You can’t just toss your memories in a shoebox and stick them on a shelf anymore,” says DCPL’s digital curation librarian Lauren Algee. “VHS tapes and magnetic media are at great risk of degradation, so saving them is kind of now or never. If these materials don’t survive into the future, what will we, as curators, have to collect from?”

Taking the necessary steps to care for physical keepsakes, journals, calendars, and home movies as well as Word documents, digital photographs, email, and social media accounts also helps patrons more easily locate items, use them in projects, and preserve them for cultural and genealogical records.

That’s where DCPL’s Memory Lab comes in.

Self-service Stewardship

Algee, who at the idea’s inception in 2015 was the only DCPL staffer with “digital” in her title, came up with the initial concept of a self-service lab in which library patrons could transfer outdated media to current formats and also learn to catalog and store them properly. She partnered with DCPL’s technology and innovation manager Nicholas Kerelchuk and developed the outline for a project whose primary goals were to work with DCPL staff to create digital preservation stations, create staff and patron guides for personal archiving best practices, design programs for educating the public about tools and requirements for digital stewardship, and serve as a national model for other public institutions.

They then put together a proposal for a National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) project, secured an operational budget for the lab, and got organizational buy-in for supporting the lab. When their NDSR application was approved, National Digital Stewardship resident Jaime Mears joined the team as project manager. Together they invented DCPL’s Memory Lab, a DIY model providing not only the equipment for digitizing home movies and scanning photographs and slides but also an online resource to educate patrons on how to care for physical and digital documents and guide them through properly archiving those assets. The DIY model gives patrons online step-by-step instructions on how to use the tools while empowering them to control the entire process.

CAPITAL MEMORY DCPL helps patrons digitize and preserve media stored on aging formats such as VHS tapes and 3.5" floppies. This year, it’s helping seven other libraries launch preservation programs of their own.
Photo courtesy of DCPL

Mears spent her yearlong residency at DCPL researching other labs and personal archiving resources, then designing and building out the lab and user experience to support formats such as VHS, VHS-C, MiniDV, audiocassettes, 3.5" floppies, photos, slides, negatives, external hard drives, USBs, and cloud storage.

Training for transfer

Mears also developed and taught workshops on personal archiving and trained DCPL staff to run it and to, in turn, teach personal archiving workshops at local branches.

“We recognized that a transfer station was not enough. Programming is not enough,” Mears says. “Communities need both, along with resources and advisors to support the iterative process that is archiving.”

To that end, the Memory Lab provides programs like Personal Archiving with Facebook, a workshop where patrons download their own Facebook archive and analyze it as an archivist to see how well it meets preservation best practices. Another program, Personal Archiving for Black History Month, offered a lecture showcasing black history photograph collections and personal archiving tips and ways patrons can repurpose pieces of their archive. They also host DC Home Movie Day, a full-day event in which attendees bring a film to be screened and learn about resources for storing and converting their film and tapes.

“Digital [media] can be just as fragile, if not more, as physical, so people need to know that once it is digitized, the work is not done,” Algee says. “It will have to be managed for the rest of its life. Things like keeping an inventory, knowing where files are and whether they can still be opened are important aspects of preserving media. It takes maintenance. Not every day, but on a regular basis.”

The most challenging part of creating the lab, Mears says, was designing a sustainable working solution for do-it-yourself transfer that was approachable to patrons with a variety of technical comfort levels.

“Personal archiving education and transfer services empower users to decide what to do with their own and their family’s legacies, something we used to take for granted but can’t anymore,” Mears says. “Topics intersect with a variety of necessary digital literacy skills such as understanding terms of use, privacy, and digital preservation. Library spaces are democratic, approachable, and in touch with changing technological trends that a Memory Lab has to be poised to address quickly.”

Replicating the results

Not only has the lab been popular with users, but before “the Memory Lab was even up and running, we began talking about it at conferences, so people were asking how to replicate it in their own libraries,” Algee says. “It created kind of a movement of libraries wanting to do the work but needing a support system. We were out there saying, ‘Memory labs are great! You should have one!’ But we also needed to find out how that would translate in a superrural library or spread out in a large district.”

So DCPL set out to create a two-year project to embed digital preservation tools and education in public libraries nationwide, following the model of the DCPL Memory Lab, and sought a grant funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grants for Libraries (NLGL) program.

“In a nutshell, the program is designed to address significant challenges and opportunities facing the library and archives fields and that have the potential to advance theory and practice,” says Giuliana Solitario Bullard, senior public affairs specialist for IMLS. “Successful proposals will generate results such as new tools, research findings, models, services, practices, or alliances that will be widely used, adapted, scaled, or replicated to extend the benefits of federal investment.”

DCPL was awarded $249,282.00 from NLGL in spring 2017. In partnership with the Public Library Association, DCPL then set out to identify seven public libraries in the country to receive training, mentoring, equipment, and financial support to create programs for community members to digitize and preserve their personal and family collections. The resulting personal archiving stations will allow libraries to foster deeper community engagement and expand staff and patron expertise in personal archiving. The cohort of participants will contribute to an emerging network of libraries with personal archiving programs, and the project will also result in documentation and training materials for implementation and use of similar stations in other ­institutions.

“Libraries are best poised to take on the responsibility of providing communities with digital preservation education and access because they have a history of public education, a commitment to accessibility, and dedicated spaces and staff,” Mears says. “Personal archiving programs, especially those with a digital focus, should be grouped with existing digital literacy efforts.”

The libraries that were chosen are the Karuk Tribal Library, CA; Houston Public Library, TX; Pueblo City-County, CO; Los Angeles Public Library; New Ulm Public Library, MN; Boyle County Public Library, KY; and ­Broward County Public Library (BCPL), FL.

According to DCPL’s grant proposal, libraries were selected based on their interest and commitment and diversity of geographic location, library system size, and population served.

“We could only select seven libraries,” says Kerelchuk, “but everything we’re creating through this grant is going to be open and usable to support other libraries in [setting up] their own labs.”

A boot camp on April 16–20 will bring two ambassadors from each of the selected libraries to Washington, DC, for five days of in-depth digital preservation from experienced Memory Lab staff and experts in preservation and personal digital archiving. Ambassadors will gain practical knowledge in digitization and the digital object life cycle as well as guidance on building digital preservation workstations, classes, and outreach strategies for the public.

“These seven locations are [each] unique, and [the] statement of need from their applications were powerful,” ­Kerelchuk says. “It will be exciting to see what comes out of their stories and their own Memory Labs.”

Broward County, for example, focused on the likelihood of natural disaster and saving a community’s history when it’s threatened. Boyle County serves a local deaf community that will require accessibility tools the Memory Lab hasn’t yet used. The Karuk Tribal Library is part of a 5,000 square foot People’s Center dedicated to promoting the active, vibrant practices of the Karuk arts, culture, and ceremonial life and language.

“There is an overwhelming need for these services in every community around the country,” Mears says. “Education about preservation and access to transfer equipment should be freely available to the public. Preservation of memories should not be a privilege.”

Denice Rovira Hazlett (; @charmgirl on Twitter) is a feature, profile, and fiction writer

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