For generations, Americans have saved hand-written diaries, photo albums (or loose photos), and more recently, home movies and oral histories that preserve family memories. Not only have we handed these physical artifacts down from generation to generation, we have often donated them to institutions from local history museums to the National Archives.
People compiling genealogies and professional historians depend on this material. Nowadays, we are creating similar items, but most often in forms that are much more fragile than paper.
The fragility of modern media
It’s easy to save paper. It can deteriorate, but otherwise it’s always easy to look at it and use it.
The photo at the head of this post has been handed down in my family. My mother’s father is the man standing on the left. I don’t know when it was taken, but the patriarch of the family, seated, died in 1918. Assuming copies of the printed photo continue to be passed down through the generations, they will be as easy to see in another hundred years as they are now.
Recordings present another problem. No one can play them except on the playback equipment they were made for. The earliest sound recordings came out on cylinders, then 78 rpm discs. Extended playing (45 rpm) or long-playing discs (33 rpm) superseded the 78. Compact discs supplanted these formats. Then came mp3, a format with no physical form at all. Some of the earliest recordings have been transferred to some of the more recent media, but by no means all. Do you have old records or tapes and no playback equipment?
Recordings of moving images have undergone a similar evolution. Movies could be made on 35mm, 16mm, or 8mm film. My mother shot lots of 8mm home movies. (Dad took most of the still photos.) It’s almost impossible to find an 8mm projector anymore, so we had many of those movies converted to VHS. We can still enjoy them, since Mom still has a functioning VHS player. I do, too. Maybe you have VHS or even Betamax home videos and no playback equipment.
I have a bunch of CD-ROMs, the next big thing after videocassettes. My latest Macs don’t have a CD-ROM drive. I have to figure out how to hook up an external drive if I ever want to look at them again.
About those still photos, we can still easily look at anything Dad printed. I think Mom still has a slide projector, but I don’t remember the last time we got it out. I have nothing but a single slide viewer for looking at my slides.
Computer software has its own problems. I made some databases using Microsoft Works. That doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t use them unless I find a way to transfer them to current software. Same with my music files on Finale Allegro.
Plenty of computer data is lost forever simply because the formats became obsolete before anyone thought of transferring it to something current.
Libraries and personal digital preservation
In 2000, Congress established the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP). It assigned the Library of Congress to lead it.
In July 2010, NDIIPP launched the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, which continued its work.
Since January 2016, the alliance has been part of the Digital Library Federation, which in turn is part of the Council on Library and Information Resources. These organizations are networks of member libraries and other institutions.
This veritable alphabet soup of federal programs deals not only with preservation of library and institutional digital materials. It also encompasses personal digital archiving. The American Library Association and various state library associations have sponsored roundtables on personal digital preservation.
Public and academic libraries have taken a leading role in helping the general public preserve digital information.
The District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL), for example, has a center called Memory Lab. It offers equipment that allows patrons to digitize home movies and other materials. It also provides instruction, in person and online, in the basics of personal digital preservation. The library has also worked to help other libraries set up similar programs.
The process of personal digital archiving
Preservation means more than updating formats. It also means creating and managing an archive.
For example, your digital camera creates a name for each picture, but that name means nothing. You need to devise a descriptive title for everything, so you can recognize what it means whenever you see it.
You might also want to preserve emails, websites, or data from your social media accounts. Or even scan handwritten diaries, term papers, or other paper documents.
Then you need to organize the files and add basic metadata so you can find and identify them later by searching on who, what, when, and where. (Metadata means data about data. You will be doing what a professional archivist or library cataloger does, except you get to make up your own rules.)
If your library has no personal digital preservation service comparable to DCPL’s Memory Lab, you can at least find basic instructions online. The Library of Congress’ Personal Archiving page has instructions for preserving various kinds of materials. Perhaps more important, it has some downloadable documents that explain in more detail than I can why it matters to you and how long your stored material will last. The library at Purdue University, among others, also has an excellent personal digital archiving page.
Creating your archive isn’t something you can do once and forget it. It will require some routine maintenance from time to time. But your great grandchildren and others will be glad you went to the effort.
The memory lab: technology in focus / Denice Rovira Hazlett, Library Journal. April 4, 2018
Public service libraries and personal digital archiving / Butch Lazorchak, The Signal (Library of Congress). April 9, 2014
Besides the family picture, photos are public domain from the Library of Congress.