by Terry Hogan
I write this article at the risk of being classified with the gentleman who predicted that man would die once he reached the speed of 60 mph. He predicted that the human body could not be withstand the pressures created by such speed. We now know he was wrong. We can easily withstand 60 mph. It is the sudden stop that kills us. But on to my dire prediction - the loss of history due to the electronic age.
One might think that the reverse would be true. Now that we can drop the entire contents of a set of encyclopedia into a word searchable database, wouldn't that help protect and preserve history? "No", is my curmudgeon answer.
Why? The answer can be found in my desk, in my cupboards, and in my file cabinets. Think back to the early days of the arrival of commonly available desk top computers. How did we save, transport, and transfer data? By disk, of course. What kind of disk? The original floppy disk. Got floppy disks with data? Try to down load them. No computer drives are available to handle the old floppies. History is lost.
The old floppy disk is about as useful as the 78 rpm record. We evolved the technology to a new portable "diskette" that was smaller; held more data; and was less easily damaged. Diskettes can still be loaded into desk top computers, but they are clearly on the way out. Now you can store much more data on writable CDs. This CD slot is usually located close to the DVD slot. But, of course there is the much smaller and handier data storage, transport, and transfer systems smaller than a pencil. The one I'm most familiar with is the Memorex traveldrive. It holds 128MB. It can be carried half way around the world, pass through high tech security devices, and plugged into a personal computer system in Greece and work perfectly. It is highly evolved and useful. But it will become obsolete. The history on it will be lost.
Our data systems evolve very fast. They become smaller, faster, and have ever greater data storage capacity. But the price is rapid obsolescence.
There is the not-so-old saying "you snooze, you loose." This is true about electronic data storage. If you file your electronic data and spend a couple of winters relaxing in Florida, your data may be effectively lost for ever. Got your family history on a large floppy disk? Too bad.
The same is true about photos. The old beta format system had the best images on the TV. But VHS won. When was the last time you saw a Beta tape player? VHS is now becoming history. "Video tapes" will be a phrase as outdated as "dialing the phone". Digital cameras are killing the film development process. "Negatives" will likely soon become worthless as there will be no commercially available developers. Digital cameras themselves become rapidly obsolete. I have a wonderful Sony digital camera that saved digital images directly onto diskettes. It was remarkable easy to eject the diskette from the camera and insert it in the computer: instant photos. No film development; no wires to connect between the computer and the camera. But it is becoming an orphan. Diskettes, as noted above, are dying out. Digital cameras now take better sharper photos at the price of more electronic memory, making the diskettes too small to hold high resolution photos. My Sony is another victim of electronic obsolescence and the photos stored on diskettes are doomed to be lost history. So, if you have family photos on diskettes; or on Beta, VHS, etc., keep awake and update. You snooze and you loose your family's photographic history. It is that simple.
There is another loss of history that would not have occurred to me, except for the complaint of a "real historian". His complaint relates to the electronic loss of early drafts of important speeches, policies, proclamations and literature. In the old days of typewriters, drafts were typed; marked up by hand and then typed into a final version. This may have occurred several times until it was edited into what was considered an acceptable last version. Many of the older typed and marked up drafts remained. Today, with the electronic typing, older versions are edited electronically. Once the final version is reached, any outdated drafts are deleted with a single keystroke, if they weren't already directly revised during the editing process. Thus, today's historian is presented with a clean final product, but no opportunity to see how that document, and the associated thought process evolved while it was being rewritten. These drafts often provide considerable insight to the historic thought process.
But for we, the genealogists (historians) of the masses, few will have any interest in the hours, months, and years we spent traveling back in time. But, we hope, perhaps a few will be interested in our final product, if that final product is in a readily available and accessible format.
And what format has stood the test of time? This grumpy old gray-haired curmudgeon has concluded that good quality, acid free paper and commercially developed photos are your best options. This is particularly true, if they are stored in archival quality plastic sheet protectors. I am skeptical of the longevity of computer printer photos. I have seen color decay, and color prints stick to glass and plastic sleeves.
It would clearly be cheaper to send out CDs to family members, rather than printed copies. But that is a little bit like sending flower seeds to a funeral.
To prevent history loss, print it out, distribute copies, and use good paper, prints, and protectors. Then you can let electronics evolve; let obsolescence take its toll; and you can use the outdated notebook computer as a doorstop. It won't matter. Good quality, acid free paper is relatively free of the risk of obsolescence.