I recently completed a family photo album/history that relied heavily on faded photographs, some going back nearly 100 years, and various pieces of written correspondence and other documents. And as I scanned this material into my computer-based digital repository I began to wonder what we, our children, and our grandchildren will be leaving for future genealogists.
Our family collection of photographs, passed down since the early 1900’s, consists of perhaps three or four hundred images. Some are faded and some are blurry but they are real and they are physical, capable of being passed on again and again without any concern about technology or data formats. A couple of shoe boxes and a coffee table to spread them all out on is the extent of the technology required.
But in today’s digital era I have some 14 thousand pictures stored on my hard drive (a mere trifle compared to some). Do I advise my executor that upon my departure from this earth my hard drive is to be removed and handed to my family? Or that everything gets printed out and a garbage bag full of images gets passed around to surviving relatives? No. Any images that were not committed to paper (i.e. most of them) will simply be lost to future generations.
To be sure, the ease of taking photos and storing them is what leads to ballooning repositories, but even if we were as diligent as when working with film and printed images there is no technologically-independent physical product to pass on to others.
And this doesn’t just apply to still images. More and more music is being relegated to the computer, so gone are the days of inheriting your father’s 78-rpm jazz collection. Home movies? Ditto. Your parent’s love letters? Lost in the ether.
So ironically the very technology that allows us to so easily capture those important moments in life is the same technology that renders them so ephemeral, which will make us the last generation that will have this kind of insight into the lives of our predecessors. And that’s sad.