What’s your Digital Legacy?

By Michael Stephens |

A few weeks ago, Kayhryn Greenhill blogged about the sudden death of Paul Reynolds, a noted scholar and thinker from New Zealand who was Adjunct Director of the amazing Digital New Zealand project until this past February. 

I was aware of him because at VALA2010 in February, he tweeted about the presentation Warren Cheetham and I gave covering our research project. He even retweeted one of my own tweets about the talk. I immediately followed him, subscribed to his blog and looked back at some of his writing and presentations. We became friends on Facebook. I was impressed with his synthesis of the possible roles for libraries, museums and cultural institutions in the social network landscape - with a strong emphasis on the people part of the equation.

I was settling into summer break and  teaching a summer course online in late May when news broke of Paul’s sudden passing. Russell Brown wrote: “Paul Reynolds, internet developer, commentator and catalyst, died suddenly yesterday morning. He would have understood and approved of the way the sad news spread – via Twitter, Facebook and old-fashioned email.” And Bookman Beattie offered a heartfelt memorial: “Paul was an enormous supporter of public libraries and literary festivals and created many of their websites. He was a kind and generous friend whom I shall miss enormously. New Zealand has been robbed of a man who gave much and still had much to offer. What a bloody tragedy.”

Since then, my thoughts return to Paul and  his work - which lives on in the online realm. His Twitter account is still there, displaying his last tweet. His blog P E O P L E P O I N T S  features a post written May 19. His Facebook wall is now a space filled with remembrances of Paul and well-wishes for his family. Digital words of remorse and encouragement live there - with folks using the like button to show approval and leaving comments.

It is a tribute that Paul's memory online continues to grow, a fitting memorial for a man who spent so much time thinking and talking about culture and digital spaces. This is a difficult idea to ponder but it keeps coming back to me. God forbid anything to happen to any of us who spend so much time in these spaces, but the question remains: What is your digital legacy? What’s left behind after you go - especially if it’s unexpected. What happens to all of the digital work that the “Blog people,” the Twittering Librarians and everyone else constantly contributes online?

I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,  he was able to plan for the inevitable, creating a touching and heart wrenching video of his own message about life to his children, and really to the world. 

Maybe like writing a will, we should also have an online component to those final requests. Passwords and account information should be shared with a trusted loved one or colleague - a digital executor. It’s scary to think about but what would your last blog post, tweet or status update read if you could plan for such a thing?

More importantly, I think leaving a legacy of good work and caring starts now. Seth Godin urges folks to “be authentic” and I responded to his statement with my own thoughts in an article last year:

In a time when snark is so easy, Godin urges readers throughout his works and blogging to be authentic – stressing quality over quantity. “There’s no limit now. No limit to how many clicks, readers, followers and friends you can acquire,” he wrote recently at his blog. “Instead of getting better, you focus obsessively on getting bigger.”

Instead, build a trusted network of colleagues and contacts in the digital library world. Share. Cite them when they inspire you. Pay it forward. The wonderful thing is now, these people can reside all over the world. It’s not unusual to have support from The Netherlands, Australia, the United Sates or England with the click clack of a few keys. Be real in these dealings. Be honest. Be yourself.

I think it also sums up what I want for all of us to be remembered for as professionals - that part of our life devoted to our work, to libraries, to the user. Be real. Be authentic. Play nice. Share. Care.

I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to meet Paul but I wholly appreciated his online presence. I’m glad it remains for others to discover his work.

Special thanks to Kathryn Greenhill and Warren Cheetham for reviewing and commenting on an early draft of this post.