Your family archive isn’t what it used to be

Not so long ago, a family archive would be a collection of photos, letters, slides, and documents stored in grandma’s attic. This is the core of a family’s legacy, something passed through the generations.

While many families still treasure such collections, the digital era has opened up countless new ways to document of our lives. With all the new pictures, videos, and other personal activity online, and made the notion of a family archive considerably more complicated.

Going digital

One of the great problems with the collection in Grandma’s attic is, well, it’s in an attic. Physical documents are always at risk–they can be thrown away, forgotten, or subject to damage brought on by time or unfortunate accidents.

Historians and archivists also have long struggled with this problem–think of the infamous destruction of the library of Alexandria. The last two decades have witnessed the rise of many ‘digital archives’, collections of physical documents that were rendered digital and organized in websites.  The first such archive was the Rossetti Archive, planned in 1993 and completed in 2008.

Thanks to affordable scanners and smartphones, more and more people are ‘digitizing’ their family documents. There are a variety of professional services that help people render photos, music records, slides, film, VHS, and other analog recording formats in digital form. There are other services and people that help people organize them into new digital collections, creating timelines, DVDs, or books.

Getting the family archive online solves the other problem of the documents sitting in the attic: now it can be explored anytime, rather than being dusted off only on special occasions. It also can be shared with people all around the world who might not be able to see it in person.

But it turns out that merely digitizing your family archive doesn’t really bring it up to speed with the world we live in.

Born digital

Over the last decades, more and more of our lives have been spent online. This means that the traces of our activity, and much of the legacy we wish to leave behind for others, were ‘born digital’. Much of the work we do, the stories we share, and the images we capture have always been in digital format–they were born digital.

For example, this archive of acclaimed author Salman Rushdie’s work is a purely digital collection. This is a world away from the bundle of paper notes and scribbles that usually make up an authorial archive. This collection recreates the now-vintage operating system Rushdie used to simulate the way he originally accessed his computer based work.

This project reminds us that as technology rapidly evolves, our digital traces can be erased if we aren’t careful. How many of your digital picture or music files can you still access? 

It turns out that digital records can be even more vulnerable to destruction or loss than physical ones. Digital historian Trevor Owens writes:

The failure rate on most consumer grade digital media is much, much shorter than the failure rate on analog media. Further, when digital media fail it’s often complete, as opposed to being partially recoverable. To that end, there is a need for many to follow in the footsteps of projects like the Center for History and New Media’s September 11th Digital Archive, where a group of historians intervened and launched a site to crowdsource the collection of everything from text messages, emails, and other digital traces of the attacks for future historians to make sense of them. Learning lessons from areas like oral history collection, it is essential for historians to wade in and actively work to ensure that the digital ephemera of society will be available to historians of the future.

New potentials

The only issue is that there is a lot of digital ephemera out there–4.4 trillion gigabytes as of 2013. To put this in perspective, that means each household produces enough data to fill 64 32GB iPhones per  year.

All the digital historians in the world, despite all their best efforts, won’t be able to parse through all of this information to build meaningful collections.

This means that if anyone wants to ensure their legacy, they will have to make a deliberate effort to save their ‘born digital’ materials. We may have to choose a space specifically designed for this purpose, one that exists outside the fast stream of regular social media, emails, text messages, and other everyday forms of communication.