They’re familiar sights — hand written diaries and documents, old black and white sepia-toned photographs, boxes of slides, canisters of film, audio cassettes, videotapes; just a few of the ways that family histories have been recorded and preserved for centuries.
But, now that we’ve moved almost entirely into an instant digital culture, how can genealogy keep up and survive?
Everyone is responsible for preserving their own history and the history of their family, says Val Huffman, main consultant of Archival Digital Preservation Services in Winnipeg, a local graphic design, web design, and communications business.
“Those artifacts that are in a shoebox in everybody’s basement have meaning to future members of the family even though sometimes the younger generation doesn’t seem to be as keen to look back but there will come a time in everybody’s life where they’re going to be interested in where they came from, who else was involved, and what interesting stories and characters came out of their past,” says Huffman.
As a consultant to Archival Digital, Huffman helps organizations and individuals preserve digital records.
Even though younger generations today capture each moment digitally by posting a status on Facebook or snapping a photo on Instagram, Huffman says those mediums aren’t designed for long-term preservation.
“Instagram is too instant so it’s all about what I did yesterday or where I was last week and there needs to be something that’s a little bit more time oriented in terms of decades so you can drill down by decade, by year.”
Huffman says Facebook isn’t suitable either. “Their timeline sounds like a good idea but it’s not a timeline, it’s just a linear progression of people’s thought of the day and it doesn’t lend itself really well to going back in time and looking at those kinds of things that we consider in a timeline.”
The solution? Huffman says it doesn’t exist yet. “Somebody has to design and program something that ordinary people find easy to use and then they can upload their photos of their past relatives, whatever is in their shoebox, type a little story, give a little context.”
Huffman says his business exists because people who have a box of genealogical records like documents and photos think that because they have a computer and scanner they can put together a digital record of their family. But they don’t realize, he says, that it’s more complicated than throwing documents, photos, and videos together.
“If there’s no rhyme or reason to it, if it’s just a bunch of jumbled up photos in a shoebox or a series of albums, they have to be collected properly and the important stuff left in chronological order, in context and then there has to be a story that threads through it because photos are just images disconnected until somebody weaves them together.”
Huffman says people like digital records because they’re democratic and it gives people a chance to put together history themselves and publish it.
“People want their family’s history digitized. If you look at ancestry.com and how many people are looking up their ancestors well they want to tie that together with old photographs, maybe they have it in a shoebox or an album and they want to find a way to tie it all together into a digital package that they can publish themselves.”
Huffman doesn’t believe that digital records are any less stable than analog records such as paper documents and printed photographs as long as people take care of their digital records.
“Remember the cardboard box–that was a storage technology that failed occasionally. If your basement leaked and your stuff was stored in the cardboard box it was ruined and that will happen with data. If your stuff is stored on a hard drive in your house and your house catches on fire–God forbid–it will get ruined. But if you have that on a CD and you take that CD and you put it somewhere else, you’ll at least have that data but most people don’t backup their own data. It’s just another chore like cutting the grass.”
Scott Goodine, an archivist at the Archives of Manitoba, adds that the key to preserving your own digital records is to constantly manage them.
Goodine says, “Decide what you need to keep, what you want to keep and then actively make backup copies, keep backup copies separate from the originals, and when you are changing technology, whether you are going to a new generation computer, a new laptop, always make sure you migrate and always make sure your files get updated because usually file formats will go one or two iterations and then they will stop [working].”
Goodine believes that individuals are more at risk of losing their family’s digital records than are government and large organizations who have people devoted to preserving records.
“There will be a fairly significant loss of records but my belief is that it will be more so with individuals rather than the big companies or the big organizations like government who have some infrastructure, have people who are actually working to preserve them, who think about it.”
The Archives of Manitoba preserves records from the government, private sector, municipalities and school divisions, The Hudson’s Bay Co., and the people of Manitoba. The Archives of Manitoba website says it “acquires records of all media, including textual records, still images, sound and moving images, documentary art, cartographic records and architectural records.”
However, Goodine says the archives doesn’t yet have any born-digital records that have become archival because the government departments are still using all the born-digital records. Goodine says it could be decades before the digital records are archival, but a staff member of the Archives of Manitoba is working on a plan to preserve digital records once they reach the Archives of Manitoba.
Still, not all digital records will survive. Goodine and Huffman agree that throughout history, we’ve lost history.
“If you look at the records we have here, or in other archives, we have wonderful records of the early pioneers of Manitoba but you’d be naïve to think that that’s not just a fraction of the records that were created,” says Goodine. “Society remembers and society forgets and if you care about your own digital records, you have to actively manage them.”
“History gets lost, history gets found, history happens, history disappears, history gets revised,” says Huffman.
He adds, “If somebody takes the effort to preserve it, preserving it digitally is just as safe as preserving it in an analog format.”