“The road to digital stewardship is paved with good intentions,” said Senior Research at Microsoft Research’s Silicon Valley Lab Cathy Marshall.

But issues arise over what people keep and how they keep it, especially when it comes to personal digital archiving, she said.

On May 14, Marshall explored this issue of personal information management in a presentation of her research at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. She was visiting the iSchool as an external member of a doctoral committee for Ph.D. candidate Christina Finneran who successfully defended her dissertation, “Factors that Influence Users to Keep and Leave Information Items: A Case Study of College Students’ Personal Information Management Behavior.”

Marshall began her presentation with a quick look back at the past 15 years of personal digital archiving. She referenced a 1995 John Seabrook article in The New Yorker that tried to explain what a home page is, concluding that is a place for anything that can be digitized.

“But that digital information will only survive as long as someone takes care of it,” Marshall said. Her research focuses on the mixing of people, technology, and digital information.

She discussed the notion of “benign neglect” as a valuable form of digital stewardship. People who accumulate photos, digital documents, and other media sometimes helps people avoid trying to guess an item’s future worth. She posed the question whether there was a difference between digital keeping and hoarding.

Marshall worked in case studies of individuals who had experienced catastrophic digital loss, including a man who had lost all his personal and work files in a crash, another who lost thousands of emails when she transferred from one job to another, and another who lost thousands of pictures when her Flickr account was closed.

She raised a series of questions or problems that are emerging due to the increase in digital information, social media and information sharing, and the continual evolution of technology hardware and software. Some of these issues that are ripe for more study include:

  • The power of “benign neglect”
  • There is no one solution, and personal archiving has become a cottage industry.
  • The secret lives of copies/multiple versions
  • Ownership of information shared on social networking sites
  • Retrieval from cold storage
  • The aggregation of individual archives

At Mircrosoft, Marshall is currently working on Community Information Management applications and issues associated with personal digital archiving. Her research falls under the rubric of personal information management and lies in the disciplinary interstices of computer science, information science, and the humanities. Her interests include digital archiving and long-term retrieval; how people use and share encountered information; how people read, annotate, navigate through, and interact with ebooks and other digital material; and spatial hypertext. She holds provocative views on topics like the Semantic Web and social tagging.

She has recently completed a book about reading on the screen, Reading and Writing the Electronic Book, published by Morgan & Claypool (2009).

More information about her publications and her blog can be found on her web site: http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/~marshall.