Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sunshine on the Digital Dark Age

A recent news article in the Deseret News, MormonTimes was entitled "Beware the 'Digital Dark Age.' The report quoted a recent presentation by Janet Hovorka in which she emphasizes the importance of backing up electronic data. She talks of lost love letters, journals and "important information." Included is the quote, ""Digital materials are much more fragile than physical materials," Hovorka said. "When you digitize, you make it easier to share, copy, restore, index and disseminate, but you have not archived it to make it last."

Other than the total lack of historical context for a reference to "a Dark Age" in a time of overwhelming communication, her ideas on backing up data are sound and necessary. But let's get some perspective here. What do we really expect to preserve forever? What kind of information is available from our ancestors? How much of that information was actually preserved by them or by chance? What can we do to make our information more available in the future? Is there really some Dark Age coming in the digital world?

Here are some examples and some hypothetical situations:

My paternal Great-grandfather lived to be 82 years old. After years of research about him and his family, I have determined that during his lifetime he likely wrote one page of his life history. So far, I have found no letters he wrote, in fact, not one written record. The same thing is true with his son, my paternal Grandfather. Except for one or two postcards or letters, I am not aware of anything he personally wrote about his life or even any incidental records he may have kept. On the other hand my maternal Grandfather was a newspaper writer and editor. I do have examples of his writing, but as far as his life goes, he wrote one short journal about a trip he and my Grandmother took from Utah to New York. The information dramatically increases with my father, I have probably got 50 to 100,000 pages of documents (let's just say there are more than I have ever tried to count) from my father. These include letters, commentaries, speeches, accounts, interviews, day timers, military records, photographs, a huge complex multitude of documents. Likely, had I the time, I could reconstruct almost his entire life from day to day. What is the difference? Time and availability of communication devices.

In my grandfathers' days producing a letter was a big event. It took time and resources. Today we write while we eat and live and breathe communication. Is it really necessary to preserve every last one of those priceless Facebook exchanges about what the cat just ate or threw up? Where does it end? When is enough, enough?

Another example. My maternal Great-grandmother spent over thirty years compiling a huge amount of genealogical information. After her death, her children and grandchildren totally ignored the value of the documents and only by good fortune, the documents were preserved, not intentionally but by neglect. My aunt kept them in her basement and from time to time asked people if they wanted them. About thirty or so years after my Great-grandmother died, the documents made their way to me. The documents have now been scanned and are available on CDs at the Salt Lake Family History Library. Those and many other scanned documents are being used to write family histories. See for examples.

The point of these examples is that we have mighty few documents from the past about our families except for some notable exceptions. Past my great-grandparents, I have a few documents and stories. What will my children have? Well, so far I have so many documents that no one wants to even look at them. We once tried printing out E-mail messages and one year or so of messages was a stack of paper almost two feet high. Where is the dark age? Didn't we just come out of one?

The intention of the article is laudable. We do need to be concerned about preserving our digital heritage. We do need to backup our data. But do we really need to worry about losing Websites? Maybe. But you might want to know about the WayBackMachine on This website among others, is archiving all of the information on the Internet. I did a search on one of my old websites and they have archives from 1997 to 2008.

 I really think this is time to look at our digital heritage and start preserving those parts that are worth the effort, but let's not talk about a dark age.

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