Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Personal digital archives

I’ve been busy scanning my father’s collection of photographs during the past few weeks. It’s a job I’ve been putting off for a couple of years now, wondering whether or not it was worth doing, whether I should just shove the albums and loose photos in a box. I scanned the slides some time ago, because they were deteriorating, but I wasn’t so sure about the albums and loose photos.

Some of them date from the nineteen thirties and I’m inclined to wonder if digital images will turn out to be so long-lived. They should be of course, but who knows? Another problem is lack of information. These old photos contain lots of information known only to family members now gone. Some of it is still known to me and my contemporary family members, but what of the future?

Do I add more information to the images for the benefit of future generations - to guard against further loss? For example, the photo of these two chaps is dated 1939. I've no idea who they are and those who knew are no longer with us. I could have asked, but never did and now it's too late. 

That train of thought made me think of our own digital archive, the digital photos, videos and documents we’ve collected over the past twenty years. What will happen to it? Is it secure?

I began writing short stories and novels on a computer in 1992, twenty years ago now, and I’ve accumulated a minor archive of stories, plots, ideas, letters, downloaded scientific papers and so on. The early stuff is just text files, but I also have Word documents and pdf files.

About ten years ago I attended a talk on the issues behind storing digital documents for long periods of time. It was mostly from a pharmaceutical industry perspective where the requirement was secure digital document storage for fifty years. The document format standard seems to be pdf, so should I produce pdf versions of all my documents?

Maybe not, but suppose current formats go out of date? Maybe software will always have legacy modules for the old formats. How do you leave a digital family archive to coming generations though – and will they want it?


Mark Wadsworth said...

Probably not, to be honest.

Angus Dei said...

Difficult one this AK, everything degenerates over time, even the supposedly indestructible DVD, CD and Bluray, what I tend to do is copy all my documents, photos and other "important" stuff on to an external hard drive which is kept in a special container out of the light and away from electrical and magnetic interference.

Or you could just keep the photos and hard copies of your documents and books in a dark cupboard-I am sure future generations would rather be able to touch and feel "old stuff" than just shove a disc into a machine.

Sam Vega said...

My guess is that there will be legacy modules, given the amount of material already stored that people will want to retrieve.

And my guess about the overall situation is that the future will be very much like the past, in terms of who stores what documents and images. Most people will probably not bother, and that hard drive full of family snaps will be thrown out when Granny dies and the relatives fight over the estate and that iconic sixties chair. If Granny uploaded all her stuff onto Google or the equivalent, nobody will know where she put it because the URL will be in that pile of lavender-scented papers that will go in the bin.

On the other hand, a few obsessives are almost certainly cataloguing and archiving their every thought and transaction, complete with annotations and back-up copies in multiple formats. They will be like those provincial zealots for cine or daguerrotype who provide material for current TV programmes. Social historians will love them.

Anonymous said...

Parchment or papyrus and oak-gall has a good track record as has clay and stone.

Most of my generation inherited a biscuit tin of old photos, I went through some of ours with my aunt before she lost her marbles and made notes for a family history - and passed on to the young'uns. If your elderly relatives still remember then get their memories noted down - or not. Visit any flea-market and you will see what happens to all the old albums, wedding photos etc - of interest to a few and the council tip.

There is a vaguely relevant article in Significance journal about 'Big Data' - we are accumulating huge amounts. Some claim to extract useful stuff out of it others reckon it is a fools errand - little more than noise. Nice to think we pay people to rake over all these dry bones.

A K Haart said...

Mark - you are probably right. Not that interesting unless you knew the people.

Angus - I'll probably shove the stuff in a box and leave it to fate.

Sam - I agree and I'm not one of those obsessives.

Roger - "Visit any flea-market and you will see what happens to all the old albums, wedding photos etc"

Indeed - I've seen loads of them. No point worrying about it.

Scrobs... said...

I've got lots of similar stuff which has accumulated from close family, and immediate family too.

I'd like to think that my grandchildren will like to see things from my early life, and also learn from my parents' and grandparents' experiences.

If it's on a hard disk, then fine, but I'll probably keep them a hard copy as well!

A K Haart said...

Scrobs - I'd like to think so too, but I'm not so sure. I think it needs background info and photos don't have much of that. Video with a commentary may be better.

Richard in London said...

Lots of help here:
US Library of Congress website: How to Preserve Your Own Digital Materials

Keep on archiving!

A K Haart said...

Richard - thanks for the link, I'll take a look.