Preservation to the People

Episode 01

Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks, and I am the Community and Partnerships manager here at Permanent, and I'm also your podcast host. The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees.

We also support non-profit organizations in their long-term preservation efforts through our storage granting program, known as Byte4Byte. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today. Our theme this episode is Preservation to the People, and we'll be interviewing folks from the DC Public Library's Memory Lab.

The Memory Lab is a physical space where people can go to digitize physical materials, transfer media from obsolete formats like floppy disks to current formats, and there are now memory labs all over the country through the Memory Lab network. We'll be talking about how the original memory lab at DCPL was started, the impact and value of providing access to equipment and expertise around digital preservation, and the real value of people's life stories and experiences.

As people involved in digital preservation, we're always asking how we can make this process more accessible to more people of the general public. It's not a simple problem to solve, but in this episode, we at least start the conversation and give some pointers.

Personal digital archiving and preservation is challenging and can be overwhelming, especially once we realize we can't possibly preserve everything. Start with identifying the story you want to tell and then build your archive from there.

So now I'm going to introduce our guests. Robert LaRose is a digital curation librarian in the Peoples Archive at DC Public Library. From 2018 to 2022, he was responsible for overseeing the operation of DCPL's Memory Lab. He was also host of Memories on Tap, the library's podcast series, devoted to amplifying the stories of Memory Lab users and their experiences with digitizing and preserving their personal collections.

Our second guest is Biljana Milenkovic, also known as B, who at the time of this recording was a librarian at the labs at DC Public Library. She currently works at the Library of Congress and she identifies as a Jill-of-all-trades. She's versed in multimedia production and all things Memory Lab.

So I'll admit that I'm a big fan of DCPL and I've always admired their community programming and everything that you all do as public librarians, just find amazing. So I was always interested in the Memory Lab, but have never lived in a location where there is one. So let's start with the backstory of how the memory lab was established and what sparked the idea, who was involved. And, yeah, we'll start with that.

Robert LaRose: Well, so both B and I got involved at the Memory Lab after it had already been established for a little bit. So I actually, I don't quite remember all of the details of how it got started, but the library established a position that was somewhat tied to the National Digital Stewardship Residency Program, and Jamie Mears was the person who filled that role, and she was basically the person who did all the research into what kind of equipment and all of the other sort of logistical things that needed to happen to establish a publicly available digitization lab at DC Public Library.

And the lab was established, I believe it opened in early 2016, I think February. And along with that, so at that point they started, having classes in digital preservation and using digitization technology and letting people make appointments to come in and digitize their stuff.

And in addition to that, part of the residency was, one of the tasks that she had to complete was, to develop a set of online instructions for people to basically be able to guide themselves through the process. And so that was how the Memory Lab Libguide, which still exists today and, and still being edited and updated as needed, but that is how that great resource was started.

So there were really multiple components to it. There was the physical space, the classes that staff offered, and the online written guide to help people complete their digitization projects.

Amanda Meeks: Great. I will definitely make sure that the Libguide is linked in the show notes, and I think that that would be a useful tool for anybody who just wants to learn more in general, right?

Robert LaRose: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. And it goes far beyond the actual step-by-step instructions for using our equipment. There's a lot of resources talking about concepts in digital preservation, preserving your physical items, things to keep in mind for preserving things once they are digitized. And there are a lot of links to other resources from Library of Congress and other organizations that are very involved with spreading the word on basically that are involved in making digital preservation more accessible to a broader audience.

Amanda Meeks: Perfect. I love that. And I think one thing that I was curious about too was I know that you are involved in The People's Archive currently, and I was wondering, What that's like and whether there is overlap between The People's Archive and The Memory Lab and just if you can share a little bit about what The People's Archive even is.

Robert LaRose: Yeah. So The People's Archive is DC Public Library's local history and archives division. So we're basically like a special collections or archive within the public library system. So we collect really anything related to DC history as it pertains to DC as a residential city.

So what that means is that we're not really here to document the activities of the federal government, or really even DC government as much, but our focus is mainly on people who, you know, regular people who lived here and documenting the culture of DC as it pertains again to people who actually lived here and, you know, grew up here, made their lives here.

So that's what The People's Archive is. We have physical collections that people look at on site. We have digitized and some born digital collections online through our digital collections portal called Dig DC. I guess we can share a link to that too, if that's desired.

So to answer your question about how it relates to The Memory Lab, there definitely is overlap between The People's Archive and The Memory Lab. And actually our first digital curation librarian, so that's my current role at the library, basically I'm in charge of preserving anything that we acquire in digital format.

So the first person who filled that role here at the library, Lauren Algee, was heavily involved in helping to establish the memory lab when it was first getting up and running. And I think she informed quite a bit of- she gave a lot of guidance as to how the lab should be run, how it should be set up, establishing or creating the Libguide resource. So yes, we are still involved with The Memory Lab to some extent. We actually have a Memory Lab working group at the library that is made up of both lab staff and People's Archive staff and we meet occasionally to discuss how to better promote the lab, just really in general how to make it better as a service to the public. And we're constantly reevaluating the equipment, our service model, the instructions. So we're always trying to work together with lab staff to make it a better resource.

Amanda Meeks: Perfect. Thank you. And yeah, that connection definitely makes sense and seems like a natural tie in. So my next question I think is for B, but I am curious, you know, can you tell us a little more about what equipment and technology users or any person would find who walks into the lab and how you provide the public instruction and access to that equipment and technology?

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: Currently in as a space Memory Lab allows or facilitates digitization and or transfer from VHS tape, VHS compact tape, 8 mm films, Super 8 mm film, audio cassettes, CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, Mini DVs, HDVS tapes, and then the number of things that can be scanned, such as negatives, photographs, documents, 35 mm slides. So the space itself is very small. It's four by maybe eight, and then whatever the height of the of the room is, maybe six or seven feet.

And within that very small space we have a computer, a scanner, so let's talk hardware and we have audiovisual rack because all that equipment needed to digitize and or transfer Mini DV tape, VHS. We have a VCR, we have, audio casset player. We also have plug in equipment that allows us to connect, that is connectable to a computer and that allows the transfer of, CDs and DVDs and floppy disks. And then we have a separate machine to digitize 8 mm films and Super 8 mm films.

So it's sort of hardware, computer scanner, those separate pieces of equipment and that AV rack with, you know, equipment that nowadays is obsolete for many households once upon a time was a staple in pretty much, well, I cannot claim every household, but it was popular In terms of software.

The computer we use, it's an Apple computer, so as a operating system and in terms of software, we utilize Apple native software, iMovie that we use to, capture Mini DV tape. We also use Blackmagic (Media) Express to capture VHS, that transfer VHS tapes and VHS compact. We use Audacity, which is free open source to capture the audio, I mean to transfer the audio cassettes and also for CDs. And then we utilize, well, pretty much that, that would be all in terms of a software.

So a person coming to our space, it'll help them being comfortable using a computer that is a Mac. It would, help them being comfortable, you know, just understanding, following the instructions in terms of the instructions that we provide. In addition of having, the instructions on the Libguide, step by step, devised guidelines to transfer and or digitize all these different formats, we also have those instructions printed out.

And last but not least, we have people who work in the labs. And each of us is comfortable showing a patron. It has to be a patron in order to use DC public library's, lab space, and particularly Memory Lab. A person coming in has to sign up with their DC Public Library card so the members of our team can guide them through the process and all of us are equipped to troubleshoot some basic issues such as disconnected cables, which is, you know, things that those things happen the most disconnected cables, being able to recognize media formats and carriers that are compromised in some way, more specifically mold on a 8 mm film and or damaged VHS tape, for example.

And then a couple of us also have sort of specialized knowledge of going even deeper and troubleshoot for maybe some more complex issues such as a person brings a media format that we may not have a workflow for, but perhaps a person brings a camera that can play that particular tape. Then one of us or two of us can hook up that camera to the workflow and execute the media transfer.

I hope that answers the question.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, it definitely does. Wow. For such a tiny space, you have a lot going on in there and I think it's such an undervalued thing to have access to the type of equipment and software that can help people, you know, transfer these obsolete types of storage media to something that can be, you know, digitally preserved and added to the cloud or added to wherever, so that it is around for much longer since those tools are becoming less and less available or accessible.

Robert LaRose: Actually, if I could jump in a little bit.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Robert LaRose: Just to go back to highlight and expand a little bit on something that B mentioned. Very importantly, she pointed out that a lot of the software that's used in the lab is open source and freely available.

Not all of it, but much of it is. For example, Audacity, iMovie, although it is proprietary to Apple, it is freely available, and that was one of the main goals in initially setting up the lab, was to make sure that the model could be replicated fairly easily. And that ties into the Memory Lab Network as well.

The goal being that as many people as possible could replicate the model for as low a cost, basically making as low a barrier as possible to establish their own Memory Lab or, you know to use the software and equipment.

And while some of the equipment itself, the hardware, like the tape decks, some of it can get very pricey, especially now because it is obsolete. As B mentioned, the software, the goal was to make it as easily accessible as possible. So just wanted to point that out.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Thank you for mentioning that and emphasizing it. I think that that is, you know, a crucial aspect of making preservation and digital preservation specifically accessible to everyone.

Right. And yeah, I'm actually really curious about learning a little bit more about how you've seen people successfully use the lab and what you think the impact has been on those people. And if you could share some examples of, you know, memorable people and stories and patrons who have come in and what that was like, that would be, that would be great.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: Sure. There's no way one can put a price or measure quantitatively the impact that access to this kind of service has on people. Everyone has someone whose voice we want to hear once again. And for example, seeing the face of, great-great-great-granddaughter who came to The Memory Lab a couple months back and said, "Hey, I had this audio set that my great grandmother recorded an interview with her mother, a woman that I've never met, in my life, but now I could hear her." It was just, you should see her face. That's the only thing I can say. Or a person coming in and saying, "I lost my partner during the AIDS Epidemic in the United States and I was able to see him once again and after I digitized this VHS tape."

How do you measure the impact, I don't know, but by feeling overwhelmed with joy and gratitude really. So the thing that I feel we can do better at The Memory Lab is that third part. So Memory Lab is a space, it is an online resource, but it's also an educational space. And that's where I think that we need to put more emphasis going forward because preservation and digitizing a VHS tape or an audio cassette, if a person does not have understanding of what does digital preservation entail, in the long run may not be as impactful as it could be.

What will happen to that digital file 5 or 10 years from now? Will that MP3 file format or the format survive the test of time? The same goes for MP4 files or MOV files. Will the person know that every five or seven years, they need to transfer everything digital from one external hard drive to another hard drive? And then just stay in the know, "Hey, I still have software where I can play these files."

Also, understanding that digitizing is not the end of the preservation game, right? If we call it a game, it's really a process. It's a journey. I call it a journey. So really what we advise at The Memory Lab, through not as many as I would like to have, but few preservation classes that we offer, is don't get rid of that precious family photo just because you digitize it, don't throw it away. Sure, you don't have to keep everything. Not everything can and or should be preserved. There is no question about that. But those most important, since we are talking about personal preservation, those most important family memorabilia, keep it and then store it safely and talk to us and ask us, " What are some of the tips and tricks you have to offer?"

And then, of course, talk a little bit more about preserving and managing that digital library that you will start building up. So all of it to say impact is immeasurable, but it can be greater. And I think that's what I want to emphasize, as a space, as a service that is applicable, replicable, flexible, adjustable, available, really to anyone.

I think the public library is a perfect space to have Memory Labs given our mission, given our impact, given the credibility and you know, the name recognition we have in our communities, but also collaborating and working with community organizations and having this space makes sense. It totally makes sense.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: Can be impactful, but we should not stop there.

We also need to think, okay, so more and more things are born digital. We have to introduce in a bigger volume, if that makes sense, that next generation of classes to prepare our patrons and communities to not only preserve that which is analog, but also to preserve and protect that which is born digital.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I think that ties in nicely to what we do at Permanent too in terms of long-term preservation, and that's our whole mission is to preserve things digitally long-term. But I think you bring up a really good point that once it's digitized, it's not time to throw out the family photos. I think that those items and objects have real sentimental value and historical value and also need to be preserved. And there are, of course, archival ways to do that. And is that something that you all do as part of The People's Archive, Robert?

Robert LaRose: Yes, we definitely do. Actually, if I might, I want to go back to some of what B mentioned so eloquently earlier.

Well, first of all, it really is priceless seeing someone tear up, when they're seeing something that happened 30 years ago for the first time again in 30 years. That part of The Memory Lab really is difficult to quantify that impact, but it's definitely there.

But yeah, in terms of preservation, I can't tell you how many times I had people come in for an orientation, you know, they had never used a lab before they're coming to learn about the equipment, how to do everything, how to digitize what they have, what formats they can do. I've lost count of how many people I talked to who said, "oh yeah, you know, I just need to clear out my closet and get these things, these slides, digitize these tapes digitized so I can throw them away."

And I would try to tell them as best as I could, that they shouldn't do that. You know, digitization is not the end. It's not the only answer to preservation, but at the end of the day, we can't, you know, can't twist someone's arm, make them do it the way that we think they should. They're here, you know, we offer the space, we offer the resources, but they ultimately make their own decisions.

But it is definitely, it's definitely something. B is right. It's definitely an area of the educational part of The Memory Lab that could definitely be expanded and that we have not done the greatest at over its history so far, but there's definitely a lot of potential for boosting that, that preservation education.

Yeah. I don't know if that answers your question so much about The People's Archive but when it comes to the memory lab, it's definitely something that we can improve.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. And I wanna point to, you know, both of you mentioned the impact being really deeply personal it sounds like for the people who come in and like you said B, get to hear their loved one's voice again, or see somebody that they haven't seen in 30 years on video and just tear up. And I can definitely relate to that. My grandfather passed away over five years ago, and I recently found an old little handheld recorder that I had used to basically do an oral history interview with him when I was in library school and I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to get the recordings off of it, but I was able to, and it was just so special to hear his voice and laugh at his jokes and remember just how funny he was.

So I can fully understand that impact on a personal level and I think, you know, I don't wanna throw out the recorder. I have it backed up all of the files at this point in a few different places on my computer, on my hard drive, and also on my archive in Permanent. And it is really, it is like a, a really special experience, so thank you for sharing a little bit about that.

Robert LaRose: Yeah, that's really awesome that you were able to save those recordings.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: Thank you for sharing.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, of course. So you've kind of touched a little bit on this in the need for more education around long-term preservation of both physical and digital items, but what do you wish more people understood about personal digital archiving and preservation beyond that, if there is anything?

Robert LaRose: I think the main thing that I always found a little frustrating, or at least a little bit difficult to get across to people, was that just like we've talked about already, that digitization is not the end goal. And many of the people that I've seen use The Memory Lab, most of them, I shouldn't say most, but a large portion of them are basically in many cases, the only people in their families that really care about preserving their family history, their personal legacy at all. A lot of times they're the one person in the family that's sort of the genealogists in the family, they are interested in researching their heritage and things like that.

But I just wish- I also wish that people realize that it's not the end of the world if they lose something. It's something that I've really had to grapple with personally because I have lost some pretty important recordings and images of family members that I wish I had. Just like B mentioned earlier, you can't preserve everything, but the goal is to at least just make whatever you do have left last as long as you can for people who actually care about it.

I've talked to people, some of the people I interviewed on the podcast, I would always ask them, "Is there anybody else in your family that is interested in preserving this stuff? Who's interested in keeping your family records alive?" And some of them say "Yes, you know, I have a, you know, a niece, a nephew, a grandchild, something like that, who is showing interest", but a lot of them, they don't really have any plan for saving stuff beyond themselves.

And I think that is a little bit sad. So maybe another thing that I would like to stress to people is that it has to be a group effort. It can't just be, you know, if you're the only person in your family that's interested, you should really work to change that.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Robert LaRose: It should really be a group, even if there's no one else in your family, maybe like a friend or a close confidant, someone who can be that partner in preservation.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: On my end, I would like to add a few things. First one is understanding that everyone's archives matters and personal archives matter because individual lives matter. And that's one of the core values of The Memory Lab that's our guiding star. That's our, you know, North Pole, North Star. Everyone, archival skills should not be a luxury. And everyone should have access to this knowledge. Everyone can. And that brings me to the second point. Everyone can have access to this knowledge.

So in other words, besides communicating and making clear in your life, history matters if you decide so, right. If you wanna keep it, it matters, right? The second thing is, encouragement. I have found over these past couple of years, working with people, people get just sort of -they just freeze. So not everyone, and, you know, we say Memory Lab is accessible, but in reality we are not accessible.

And I constantly think about people. We are not a hundred percent accessible. We are not accessible to those who do not use computers and cannot make that initial appointment, schedule that initial appointment. We are not accessible to people who have mobility issues and they cannot, they cannot come to us. In other words, even though we are trying to do some outreach, and this coming year, 2023, we are trying to introduce, we are planning to introduce a mobile scanning station. Even that, that mobile scanning station will not be going to people who are home bound or are bed bound, for that matter, that mobile scanning station. Best case scenario would be going to our neighborhood libraries. So, those are some, just a few examples of, you know, how, in what ways we are not accessible.

But for those who do come to Memory Lab, in addition to what Robert already has shared, I would add encouragement and you cannot stop. And it can be very - imagine yourself, 20-30 years ago. Well, I'm talking to a group of two. So imagine the two of you before you knew about Adobe Bridge, before you knew about metadata, before you knew about organizing anything in meaningful chunks, et cetera, getting 500 TIFFs or JPEGs on a USB drive. Now what?

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: And then so part of the encouragement is repeating the mantra "start small, start now." So besides that basic core value of Memory Lab, that personal archives matter because individual lives matter. If the people decide, choose to, to preserve their histories, they should be, these skills are not exclusive, the knowledge.

And so we make access to the equipment to some people, right? But start small and start now and think about the ways that you can utilize that one photo that you digitized. Can you share it in the email with your family and friends and try to figure it out who are these people? Maybe you will, you know, get an image 30-50 years ago when you were in a high school and you can try to reach out to your high school mates and see what kind of conversation that will spark. The end of the year, the time was, you know, this is joyous season for so many. Perhaps giving a, coaster or just a photograph you can print out, use that digital file and, and print a few images and then send them instead of the postcards to the people near and dear your heart. And or maybe, you know, create a mug with an image of ,funny images, see where that's gonna take you. Start small and start now. It never ends. It never ends.

And the last thing that I always share with people who come and engage in those conversations about preservation is, really looking at the boxes in your most likely attic and or basement can be paralyzing. It is. You don't know where to start, how to start, how to go about it. So I say, even before you open any of them, think about the story that you wanna tell. So write a story, a narrative, a "My story narrative" in 200 words. What are the things, if this is like your story that you wanna tell or your family story based on the information that you know, what are those 200 most important words?

And those 200 words will help you as you start going through the boxes, just opening them and say, "Hey, this does not fit the narrative. I'm gonna leave it temporarily into to go box until maybe based on what I observe in this box. Maybe I will change a few words in my narrative." But it'll help you that, so first you have to know what you have, identify, select, organize, digitize, and then manage that digital collection.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. I love that advice of thinking about the story that you wanna tell. And also, you know, the idea that your personal story matters. We, Permanent, often says, you know, our part of our mission is that everybody has a legacy that's worth preserving. And so I think that when we talk about legacy, we're also talking about that story, that life story that you want to tell, that you wanna preserve and that you wanna pass on to other people.

And I think that that is just amazing advice B about starting with that initial intention and goal and clarifying that before you even start digging into the materials that you have. Thank you.

Robert LaRose: And yeah, I also point out like as B was talking about making materials out of these special items, that's another great way to get other generations in your family interested in helping out with this kind of work.

Amanda Meeks: Absolutely.

Robert LaRose: Yeah.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Well, thank you both so much for being guests on our very first podcast. I am just so delighted at this conversation and have learned so much from you both. So thank you.

Biljana "B" Milenkovic: Thank you for having us.

Robert LaRose: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Amanda Meeks: Thank you for listening to our first-ever episode of Our Digital Futures with If you'd like to find out more about us, please check out and sign up for a free account today. A special thanks to this episode's guests, Robert and B, and you can find out more about them and their work in our show notes. Also, thank you to our producers at Next Day Podcasts, and of course, all of our listeners and members. Thank you.


Robert LaRose headshot

Robert LaRose

Robert LaRose is a digital curation librarian in The People's Archive at DC Public Library. From 2018-2022, he was responsible for overseeing the operation of DCPL's Memory Lab. This included training users, troubleshooting, maintaining and repairing equipment, creating instructional documentation, spreading awareness of the lab among the general public, and serving as an "on-the-ground" liaison to the Memory Lab Network's project manager, Siobhan Hagan. He was also the host of Memories on Tap, the library's podcast series devoted to amplifying the stories of Memory Lab users and their experiences with digitizing and preserving their personal collections.

Biljana Milenkovic headshot

Biljana Milenkovic

Biljana Milenkovic (known as B) is a librarian at the Labs at DC Public Library. A Jill-of-all-trades, she is versed in multimedia production and all things Memory Lab.



Amanda Meeks headshot

Amanda Meeks


Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.