Laura Alagna 2016-07-11 13:08:53
Dealing with obsolete media has become a familiar challenge for archives. Floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and vintage computers are sources of archival content that many of us encounter. In the last few years at Northwestern University Libraries in Evanston, Illinois, we have met with a new type of technological challenge in digital archiving: mobile devices. Several of our collections contain cell phones that were initially treated as artifacts when they were donated. Mobile devices often contain digital content that would certainly be preserved if in analog form—after all, digital images, texts and emails, and lists of contacts are just digital versions of photographs, correspondence, and address books. Therefore, after receiving permission from donors, we decided to extract anything we could from the cell phones in our collections. We soon faced the main problem in archiving data from mobile devices: all of the cell phones in our collections were orphaned, donated to us with no peripheral charging cords or data cables. None of these phones had any removable digital storage, and many had proprietary or obsolete ports, manufactured in the days before USB connections became standard. These mobile devices, which may have contained valuable digital content, were essentially dead on arrival. A Crowdsourcing Strategy After a long and frustrating journey trying to source obsolete data cables (I spent many hours on strategies I do not recommend: endlessly searching online marketplaces, attempting to order the right connectors only to find they were out of stock, emailing manufacturers, and pestering the employees at my local Radio Shack), I decided it would be better to search closer to home. Don’t we all have that drawer of electronic junk that we keep meaning to send to the e-recycler? If we could somehow tap into people’s junk drawers, we might be able to find the missing data cords and charging cables that would help us archive the contents of our mobile devices. From this idea, #UndeadTech came alive. A crowdsourcing campaign would not only help us build a collection of electronic peripherals for future use but would also raise awareness of our digital archiving program at Northwestern University Libraries. Happily, #UndeadTech was profoundly successful on both fronts. We were able to acquire more than 300 cords, power supply units, and other electronic peripherals, which were organized into a collection containing nearly 100 items, 38 of which are unique. Furthermore, #UndeadTech reached a wide audience on our campus and beyond: Media outlets including the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ/Chicago Public Media picked up the story, and it traveled far and wide. Our hashtag was referenced across social media platforms and we received phone and email inquiries from around the country. #UndeadTech was also recognized when the Northwestern University Libraries received the 2016 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award. Three Tips for Success Through the success of #UndeadTech, we learned several key lessons for successful crowdsourcing campaigns: Plan ahead. We began planning #UndeadTech six months before its launch, brainstorming outreach strategies and the logistics of the campaign with our Northwestern University Libraries’ marketing and communications team. With their help and insight, we developed the branding of #UndeadTech, created a schedule for the two weeks in October that the campaign would be live, and composed promotional content, including daily social media posts. These steps were invaluable to the success of the campaign, especially after it blew up. Having social media content already written and ready to post was crucial to keep #UndeadTech alive when trying to respond to the hundreds of inquiries that flooded in. Use the power of networking. By involving others in the library and across our university campus, we were able to boost our campaign significantly. Our colleagues in the libraries’ marketing and communications unit helped us connect with university departments who could amplify our message, including University Relations and the Alumni Association. We also contacted groups on campus who may be receptive to the message of #UndeadTech, such as student-led technology groups at the McCormick School of Engineering and environmental and sustainability organizations. Networking with a variety of university departments and groups on campus brought #UndeadTech to a much wider audience than the libraries alone. Make it cute. Finally, the cuteness factor of #UndeadTech was undeniable in its popularity. As we discovered, tying a crowdsourcing campaign into a current event or trend can give it a lot more reach. By using a zombie theme (perfectly captured in the logo from Bossman Graphics) and intentionally planning the campaign to coincide with Halloween, we amped up the mass appeal of #UndeadTech and piqued the interest of media outlets. When planning a crowdsourcing campaign, don’t be afraid to broaden its message: #UndeadTech appealed to a wide audience because of the timing with Halloween and the current pop culture appeal of zombies. Clever or appealing branding can give a crowdsourcing campaign a life of its own. Raising the Profile of Archives As #UndeadTech taught us, crowd sourcing can be a valuable strategy for an archives, not only for reaching a goal like acquiring equipment for obsolete technology, but also for engaging your community and the public in your archival mission. Without #UndeadTech, we would not have been able to copy any content from mobile devices in our collections for Northwestern University Libraries’ digital archives. More importantly, #UndeadTech raised awareness of our digital archiving program and prompted our community and potential donors to think of digital devices as sources for archival materials. With the resources of the crowd, even archival content from decade-old flip phones can come back to life!
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.