Preserving Our Present: The Challenge of Digital Preservation

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand

This post might almost seem to be an anti-downsizing-the-home piece.

It’s not, really. But since one of our most frequently repeated tips about downsizing a home–and about proactively keeping  too much “stuff” from building up in the first place–is that the goal is to get rid of the stuff while saving the memories, I maintain that digital preservation is something that we all need to be concerned about.

Here’s why. I believe that some of the developments of the IT revolution we are currently living through (especially e-mail and social media networks) have been wonderful in terms of getting people to record many fascinating details of everyday life, things that were lost in the years when many of these kinds of “conversations” took place over the phone. When e-mail came along, people started writing much more prolifically again: and in the process they very naturally and unselfconsciously were creating an interesting written record of the details of daily life , the kinds of things that before the phone might have been written down in what we now call “snail mail.”

That’s terrific for archivists,  professional and amateur historians, novelists, and anyone else who has an interest in a written record of the details of daily life. The problem is, what is happening to all that e-mail (and other things that are being recorded digitally)? Are people saving it, and if so how? If they are saving it on paper, it will last as long as the paper does. (This is the part of the post that may seem at cross-purposes with downsizing the home, since they will also be creating paper documents that need to be stored, moved, etc. ) There is also a wealth of valuable video and sound recording taking place all the time, every day, all around us. But who is saving it for the enjoyment of future generations, and how are they doing so? Will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren have the pleasure of seeing what life looked like, sounded like, felt like in the early part of the twenty-first century? Or will much of the rich store of valuable information that we’re currently creating be lost?

If this documentation is being saved only digitally, the concern is, how will it be accessed in the future? Are we assuming that we (or future historians) will be able to “somehow” decode this information despite changes in technology?

According to Howard Besser, an expert in digital preservation at the Library of Congress, that’s not necessarily something we can count on. “One of the daunting issues with digital preservation is that you need an entire complex infrastructure to display the contents of a digital file: the “right” player, driver, interface, operating system and software (and version). That infrastructure is fragile and continually changing. If even a single element within it breaks or becomes obsolete (which inevitably will happen within a decade or two), the entire network can become unviewable. Today we might not be able to read the contents of a 10-year-old floppy disk or disk drive or decode a mid-1990s version of Microsoft Word. By contrast, we can read still read something as tangible and simple as a papyrus scroll thousands of years after its creation. Humankind’s least sophisticated media – chiseled or painted stone – might last for millennia, and our most sophisticated media – to date, digital – might last a few decades.”

Of course there is always the possibility that much of this material is not being saved at all. As a writer, and as a person who was born with the soul of an archivist, I find that to be a deeply regrettable thought, though of course it is always up to individuals what private information they decide to keep and what they decide to get rid of. That hasn’t changed with changes in technology.

In April 2010, the Library of Congress demonstrated their belief in the potential historical value of the highly ephemeral medium  named Twitter by acquiring access to the entire Twitter archive. I have no doubt that future historians will find interesting things in those files. I only hope that similar efforts are being made to ensure future access to other places where the details of are daily lives are being recorded.

As October is American Archives Month, this seems an appropriate time to consider the issue of digital preservation. The Practical Archivist is a very helpful resource written by a professional archivist, with valuable tips for nonprofessionals who want to do their best to preserve their own family’s history for future generations. I think paying a visit to her site is a wonderful way of celebrating American Archives Month.

What are your thoughts about this matter? Are you saving your e-mails (and other digitally recorded materials)? If not, do you think you should be? Do you have any tips for the rest of us out here who are trying to get a handle on this situation?

We’re all ears!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

For more on digital preservation:

One Response

  1. […] up a bit on the issue of digital preservation. You can learn about why this is a complicated issue here, or here. And you can get some help in knowing what to do about it from the following […]

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