04/26/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Digital Preservation Is Cultural Literacy

On Monday the Library of Congress kicked off its third annual Preservation Week (April 23 to 28), a joint venture designed to engage the public on issues related to the preservation of digital memories. In addition to talks and demonstrations on organizing and saving family records, videos, and digital photographs, the library is also reaching out to kids with its events programming. While digital preservation might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about K-12 curricula, in fact teaching kids about Web archiving, digitization, media storage, and collection building can foster long-term thinking and serve as a gateway to hands-on learning in science and technology. In the more than five years I've been involved as a researcher with video game preservation, I've witnessed firsthand the indispensible role younger generations play in developing new tools and resources -- such as emulators and crowd-sourced databases -- to ensure ongoing access to our cultural past. With various institutions increasingly recognizing the importance of data curation and management as part of a core set of K-12 literacies, Preservation Week offers an ideal opportunity to get students involved. Here I've rounded up some ideas for preservation-related projects and activities on which students, parents, and teachers can collaborate.

Help Archive the Web

"If you were a K12 student," asks the digital archivists at the Internet Archive, "which websites would you want to save for future generations? What would you want people to look at 50 or even 500 years from now?" The program uses specialized software to harvest content from the Web, which is then permanently hosted at the Internet Archive. Adopting the metaphor of a "time-capsule," students thematically select and describe the websites they want to preserve; collections to date have been organized around such varied topics as pop culture, health, current events, fashion, retail, books, and games. Archived websites, all of which are freely accessible to the public, run the gamut from the serious (the AIDS epidemic) to the absurd (Silly Bandz). One of the things that makes the project so fascinating is the way students creatively strive to craft messages for future audiences: describing the website for Borders bookstore, for example, students at James Moran Middle School in Connecticut are at pains to define what a book is for distant readers who may not have much knowledge about the world of print: "A book is something that is read, paper with words on it, and all that paper is covered by a hard cover. After you finish a page, you turn the paper and there is more of the book." Such an exercise in defamiliarization is necessary if we're to make our cultural heritage legible to our descendants. (For more information, contact the K-12 Web Archiving Program.)

Surf the Web as It Was

The Wayback Machine, a service provided by the Internet Archive, allows users to "surf the Web as it was." Archived versions of web pages date back to as early as 1996. Try plugging in the URL for your school to see how its web presence has changed over the years, or check out the animated GIFs on prehistoric websites once proudly maintained by your friends and family. The Wayback Machine can also be used to open up a fruitful discussion about the troubling practice of web-scrubbing: altering Web content over time to erase traces of controversial positions or embarrassing gaffes. (See, for example, this 2003 press release to get a sense of web-scrubbing in action, followed by this one captured a few months later. Notice any differences between the two?)

Read a Novel With Digital Preservation Themes

Published in 2011, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a science fiction novel set in the year 2044. In a recession-ravaged global economy, the novel's main characters take refuge in the OASIS, a 3D virtual world whose wealthy founder, James Halliday, has just died. Obsessed with all manner of '80s pop culture, Halliday has willed his entire fortune to whomever first completes a series of quests that demand encyclopedic knowledge of classic video games, including Joust, Pac-Man, and Zork. In effect, Halliday has gamified the digital preservation of his beloved 8-bit worlds, using the prospect of fame and fortune as a carrot with which to bait players into mirroring his own nostalgia. The novel offers a kind of crash course in digital preservation, with vintage hardware, emulation, and game ports all figuring prominently.

Archive and Visualize Patterns in Your Email

Effective curation of digital artifacts means not only preserving them, but also providing the means to access and reuse them. Follow the guidelines on the Library of Congress website for archiving personal email, including exporting it to a non-proprietary format (e.g., plaintext or mbox) and storing it in more than one location. Download and install MUSE, a free tool from Stanford University for exploring and visualizing email corpora. Using MUSE features such as sentiment and communication graphs, analyze your life over time.

Want more ideas? Create your own online exhibit, learn about a self-erasing poem that was recently recovered, or tell a story about the afterlife of an object. Then tweet your experiences using the #preswk hashtag.