Tuesday, August 20, 2013

When All The Paper Is Gone, What Will We Have Lost?

I am certainly not the first to muse about and then write -- as I am doing here -- concerning the demise of writing.  But I am not talking merely about the near ubiquitous shift to verbal communication represented by the omnipresent cell phone or the streaming of video content or even the writing with electrons via email, twitter and . . . yes . . . even blogs. [1]  

I am talking about the slow loss and perhaps eventual eradication of the so-called "hard copy" record formerly represented in paper-based handwritten, typed and printed letters, notes, diaries, cards, journals, magazines, books and photographs.  The things that our parents, grandparents and ancestors back as far as most of us have been able to trace, produced as everyday items and that we can still easily access if they were preserved for us somehow.  These are the things that took some time and effort to create, but also took more than a button push to destroy.  To destroy these hard-copy documents of the lives of our ancestors required fire, shredding, the slow long-term ravages of rodents, and insects, or the degradation caused by acid and light during improper storage over a very long time.  BUT, if the paper medium was protected and preserved the content can still be accessed even centuries after the documents were created simply by picking them up and examining them.  Will this be true, however, in a few short decades (or less) as the electronic information age matures?  I wonder.

I need only hold original letters, postcards, diaries and photographs in my family collection that are many decades or sometimes more than a century old (many images of which -- thanks to the age of the computer -- have been shared here on The Prism), to realize that I have virtually no problem accessing them, analyzing and extracting the information they contain and then sharing them.  It gives me pause, however, when I realize how difficult it is for me to even access the content of the LPs, cassette tapes, eight tracks, VHS tapes and other music/video formats I have enjoyed and collected in just the last 4 -5 decades.  Soon it could be all but impossible outside tech museums to access the content in these media formats.  Will the same thing soon happen to all the electronic data we collect and assemble into our digital genealogy records?  Even if we back up our data and take extremely good care of our computer and digital hardware, will our descendants be able to access our record data in the future like we have been able to access "paper-based" media for hundreds and hundreds of years?  For example, ask yourself if all the genealogy data you had on floppy disks or zip-drives got completely, accurately and faithfully transferred onto the latest new format or media?  How much has been and will be lost to our descendants by being left in the dust of advancing technology or by falling all too easy victim to the ability to delete data with the ease and quickness of the press of a button?

While vacationing in the Adirondacks, where I was already thinking about writing this post, the "All Tech Considered" feature on NPR presented a piece on July 30th by Heidi Glenn.  The title was "In The Digital Age, The Family Photo Album Fades Away."  The article muses on the sad but increasingly apparent demise of the family album and scrapbook in this digital age; but I worry too about the complete passing of a centuries-old format -- the hard-copy, paper-based media of generations of our ancestors -- in favor of the easy and convenient (but very ephemeral) electronic formats we have all embraced and rejoiced over in this golden digital age of genealogy.  Will our descendants have the same long-term ability to access the electronic record we are creating of our lives in the same way we have been able to access the paper-based record of our ancestors?  It bears serious contemplation.

On that note, I am going to go hold and look at some paper letters, hard bound diaries and paper photographs from my ancestors while I put my original vinyl album of Sgt. Peppers on my decades old turntable.  I want to hold the records created by my ancestors in exactly the same my they did . . . as I get older, losing my hair, not too many years from now . . . !  
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Digital photo collage by the author with the assistance of a scanner, computer and the internet.

[1]  Some bloggers (Heather Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy for one) have recognized the possible loss of electronic blog content and have pro-actively taken periodic steps to save their blog content in old-fashioned paper-based format via "blog books" from such sites as Blurb.  I am convinced this is an excellent idea and an important endeavor to try to preserve our blog content and the contributions they make to the genealogy community.  I am slowly following Heather's example and trying to do just this for my infant blog.  
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. Great post, John. I also fear the lost of the hard-copy. The digitizing of information has already made things more difficult: just look at an office scenario. You've work at a job for three years and have created quite a little database of important information. You get a promotion or transfer and unless you are a good Samaritan and save that work to a CD or transfer it to a server it's all lost. How much work has been lost in situations like that, I shudder to think.

    I recently moved into a new house and have been unpacking not just mine, but all of my parents', hard copies of various things. I can't seem to throw any of it out so I'll join you and listen to Sgt. Pepper on my remastered CD and remember. ;)

  2. Thanks for your comment Heather! I know what you mean about not being able to throw things out. I'd be embarrassed for anyone to see my "genealogy room." It is marvel of clutter because once I see things like old report cards from the late 1800s, an old driver's license from the early 1900s, a list of wedding gifts from the same time period, etc., and realize how cool I find them, I then tend to view everything as a future treasure for the potential descendants and relatives I will probably never know -- but I think my wine cork collection is probably going overbrad and they will get thrown away . . . one of these days! :-)

  3. Ha! I have a wine cork collection, too. I have a horrible habit of collecting hard copy items for people I'm not even related to because I see the POTENTIAL of an ancestor wanting it. Sad, really, but it pleases me. ;)