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The Deep Future

Not to continue on the morbid streak, but Pamela Jeanne sent me an article from NPR that I’ve been thinking a lot about, too.  It’s on historical preservation; not just the stuff that we know is important in the moment, that we immediately put behind a glass case.  But the things that we think we are doing a good job preserving for future generations to see that will be inaccessible or gone altogether.

It’s not just preserving photographs in a medium that will still be used in the future.  I mean, that is something anyone who has gone from records to audio cassettes to compact discs to streaming music can wrap their brain around.

It the sheer deluge of words; how do we separate out the important ones from the toss-away?  How do we curate and preserve the important tweets?  The Facebook status updates that created change or are indicative of how we live our lives right now?  Self-publishing has brought about a tidal wave of books: a good thing for the present moment and a logistical nightmare for preservation.

Especially when we look deep into the future.  Despite people building careers on preservation will we inevitably have our moment in time boiled down to a handful of artifacts?  Are humans not meant to hold onto everything, despite being hardwired to hoard?


In the NPR article, Vint Cerf takes the example of research conducted on old letters and photographs; things we can still pick up and use even though technology has changed.  Whereas consider the hours of audio cassette interviews I’m storing in the basement.  (Why?  I have no idea.)  They’re hard to access now.  I need to borrow equipment in order to listen to them.  Will they be completely inaccessible forty years from now?  Just a piece of useless tape encased in plastic?

I’ve been thinking about how I need to print out photos.  I have my pictures backed up in multiple places, but all of those places are useless if the technology moves on and I can no longer look at them.

It’s not just that the world may be a very different place 100 years from now and the people no longer understand why social media meant so much to us or the jokes on Saturday Night Live.  It may be that there are people who want to understand, who want to do research on our lives, and yet have no way to get to the information or even sort through the data to know what is important to consider.  When every tweet is kept, how do future generations know which are the important ones within the sea of trillions?

I’m thinking about building a personal time capsule book for the twins, something that they can pass down through the family.  Nothing huge; perhaps only a photo or two from each year.  Commentary on current events.  Written recordings of big family moments.

I wish I had something like that from the prior generations.  Did they have the intention to do something like that, too?  Did life get in the way, or did it not occur to them that future generations would want this information?  I can’t believe that preservation is a modern thought, which begs the question: why didn’t recent past generations protect and curate for us?  Is there something we don’t know?


1 Valery Valentina { 02.25.15 at 8:35 am }

From my father and his siblings we have an oil painting (portrait) as a little boy. Also an oil painting from his father as an older man. Maybe that generation thought that the one painting should be enough conservation?

2 a { 02.25.15 at 8:41 am }

Um…don’t you have photo albums or scrapbooks? My mom chronicled our entire childhood in photo albums. Even my dad had one from when he was in the Coast Guard in WWII. (His is not exactly…useful without him there to tell you the stories. But they had a dog on the ship! And they went to Italy to pick up wounded soldiers and bring them home! And…that’s all I know. But! My aunt saved letters from him from that time, so I know he enjoyed writing home and asking for money for booze.)

I have a few things for my daughter – A couple books with the family genealogy that I was able to put together. A couple photo albums of her. A scrapbook of her preschool and kindergarten years. I have one for first grade that I haven’t done anything with yet. Guess it will end up being 1st and 2nd grade.

As far as my life goes – I have a few photo albums and travel journals, but most of it is unexplained – pictures with no context. And I have a whole bunch of 8mm film that I am (one day) going to put on DVD. And, of course, there are those scrapbooks that my mom made.

To make a long story longer…I guess it just depends on the interests of your parents? My mom chronicled everything when we were kids (not so much when she went back to work), but my dad’s family just had random photos and major events.

3 Kate { 02.25.15 at 11:50 am }

I appreciate even more, amidst the “lost” memories of different technologies that, yes, now lack (at least easy access to) the required tools to view it, the books upon books of photos that my mom has…

Each christmas I’d groan as she pulled them out and said, “Take any pictures that you want!” because I could be doing better things, like looking at facebook – instead of looking at (for the 50th time) pictures of myself sitting naked on a toilet at 18 months old.

Next time I’m at her house, I’ll be taking the whole books home with me, if she’s still willing for us to take them!

4 torthuil { 02.25.15 at 2:51 pm }

It’s one of my goals to keep photos sort of organized, which for me means adding them to a Picasa album and sending out to relatives about once every month. But it’s so much work! Probably more work now that we have digital cameras and take more photos in a week than most people used to in a month. My mother also make photo albums scrupulously organized pre-digital age. I admire them, but can’t see myself doing the same if only because there are so many more photos now. She also kept (I swear) almost everything from when we were growing up, from old text books to school projects to every certificate about everything. I’m grateful because it’s evidence we were loved and our accomplishments were celebrated, but sometimes I wonder if there can really be TOO much archiving?! I think now she hopes we would actually take some of that stuff….but as I said to her the other day: “We’re just not sentimental about ourselves!”

5 earthandink { 02.25.15 at 4:01 pm }

I think they sometimes did. But disasters happen. Floods, earthquakes, fires. For instance, generations of women saved their best dresses in an old trunk in my family. Each woman put their very best in to the trunk, along with a scrapbook that each generation filled out the pages of. It was lost soon after my mother died, when my father had a flood in his office. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to try and preserve it. He didn’t know the importance of it.

And so I am the last of the women of my family to have held those clothes in my hands, to have played dress-up in them, to have wondered over how tiny my great-great grandmother’s best shirt was. (Pin, with a high collar, trimmed in black velvet and lace, with leg of mutton sleeves.)

Also, the ability to keep records of any sort was the priviledge of the well-off and the educated. You have to be able to write, you have to be able to afford paper, you have to be able to have the time to keep a record.

I think keeping paper records now is incredibly valuable. What will our future biographers do without them. 😉

6 earthandink { 02.25.15 at 4:01 pm }

That’s pink, not pin.

7 Mali { 02.25.15 at 6:03 pm }

I’ve been aware of this for a while now. A former business colleague handed his IT people his laptop, complaining that it was working very slowly. As it was a company laptop, the first thing they did was clean out the hard drive. It had the only copies of the last two years of his family photographs! He hadn’t printed anything.

I very carefully produce photobooks, because if our digital age collapses, I will at least have my paper photobooks. And I like being able to pick them up and flip through them – and I never do that with my digital photos. I am flabbergasted that other people don’t do anything with their photos – my sister hasn’t even done a photobook for her wedding, and she’s training to be a photographer! Some have suggested I should start a business producing other people’s photobooks. After all, they can be produced, uploaded, and printed anywhere in the world. I would do that happily if I thought anyone would pay me! (Being unemployed right now).

I also put favourite photographs on the wall, make cards, etc. https://aseparatelife.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/snapping-memories

My husband has digitised tape recordings of his grandmother talking about her life, because cassettes are becoming so obsolete. And they have transcripts of the recordings too.There are services that will do it – you should at least upgrade from cassettes to digital.

Phew, this is becoming a huge reply! Apologies.

But finally, I did want to say that I think today with digital cameras and phones and updates, we don’t learn to censor or curate our thoughts, our favourites., and so the sheer volume becomes overwhelming, and people don’t know what to do with their photos/writings, etc. But the first step is just to start.

8 Justine { 02.25.15 at 9:17 pm }

I have photo albums for my son’s first five years of life, and for my daughter’s first two, but none after that. And I feel the need to preserve, too … because I feel like the digital photos my husband has are not going to be enough some day. (And yet: the paper ones are subject to their own disasters, aren’t they?)

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

9 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.26.15 at 11:07 am }

I like the idea of a personal time capsule.

This reminds me that I did a time capsule for my 2nd graders in Syria 18 years ago. I think they managed to open it for their high school graduation, prior to the utter destruction of our school and their country. But I didn’t ever hear their reactions to their artifacts.

Also, I’ve documented my kids’ lives every day on their personal calendars/journals. Images, though? I should get on that.

10 Pamela { 02.26.15 at 4:09 pm }

Curation … that’s the toughest part of the process. It has to be done through two lenses — your own (what do you think is important) and with an eye to those who will either inherit or want to inherit the information (what will they likely find of use). My DH has embarked on a monster “de-contenting” project of physical things. (It’s spring here in California so it’s very much a spring cleaning with a higher order goal.) With no children to leave our “things” to, we have to consider what our next of kin (siblings or nieces/nephews) will see as a treasure or trash.

11 TasIVFer { 02.27.15 at 5:52 am }

We have photo albums and scrapbooks plus random photos from several generations. Plus I come from a long line of photographers.

But these momentos have taught me that it’s not just the big events that are fun to see. It’s nice to see photos of family from past decades, but people also peer at the things in the background – the once familiar room you’ve not seen since you were 6, the photo you now have on your wall, etc. So I’ve grown up with an appreciation for taking photos of my everyday life. It’s fascinating to see the places I’ve lived now, even though they were commonplace then. And I’ve extended this: now I do something called ’12 of 12′. I take 12 photos of my day on the 12th day of ever month (well, I usually take several billion more than 12 but I select 12 for a blog post), blog about it, and every few years print out a book with these posts. Sometimes the 12th is just an average work day and sometimes it happens to be a special day, so I wind up with an interesting, random cross section of my life.

12 loribeth { 03.02.15 at 5:33 pm }

I finally stopped printing off my digital photos about five years ago… they were just piling up, because I take so many more photos with digital cameras than I did in the past (and I’m about 10 years behind on putting them into photo albums). And although I am diligent about backups and leaving backup copies with my mom, etc., stories like this make me think that perhaps I should go back to making prints. Or at least photo books with the best of my digital photos. I also need to get the VHS of my 1985 wedding transferred into a digital format. Perhaps a good 30th anniversary project. 😉

13 NotWhen { 03.11.15 at 2:27 pm }

This has been in my “to be commented on” queue for a long time, well since you posted. As a trained professional archivist with specialization in digital preservation AND as a new mom you’ve totally hit my wheelhouse here. And, I have to say, I’ve found this to be one of those scenarios where the more you know about a subject, the more you are crippled by that knowledge. I spend countless hours as work proposing preservation platforms, ingesting born-digital content into OAIS-compliant preservation systems, and pushing as hard as I can push to get my administration to take note of how very, truly important it is that they fund initiatives now, before we’ve lost it all. It’s a hard sell and a hard slog.

For the things that really matter in my private life? It’s all printed. I trust my lock boxes chances in a house fire more than I trust the bits and bytes of my hard drive and cloud storage any day. I’ve made a career of watching digital dribs and drabs of life fail massively and unpredictably. When it doubt, print it out.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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