Tuesday, January 6, 2009

All for naught: How long will your family history collection last?

I recently read with interest an obituary for an old friend of mine: the VCR. Donna Pointkouski wrote a glowing tribute to her old pal after reading a Chicago Tribune article about the last producer of VHS tapes closing its doors this year. It has been quite awhile since my family parted with most of our VHS tapes and began converting treasured family videos to DVD, so it was not too difficult for me to read the news of its final demise. It was a humorous reminder of the changes that our world is facing.

I had previously enjoyed watching another tribute to obsolete technology on the History Channel's Modern Marvels program. The December 19 episode entitled Retro Tech focused on other old friends of mine: the typewriter, the film camera, and more.

Both the show and Donna's "obituary" reminded me that a couple of months ago I had read the online article Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology by Alexander Stille. (Thanks to Practical Archivist Sally Jacobs for recommending it.) Written in 2002 as part of the book The Future of the Past, it remains a fresh reminder of the challenges that historians and archivists are facing as they race to keep up with changing technology. The article focuses primarily on the struggles of the National Archives and Records Administration as it works to choose which materials to save, preserve the materials that it has deemed valuable, and ensure that these items will be accessible in the future.

This reminded me of the small collection of records that I still have in my attic. It's nice to look at them sometimes, but I cannot enjoy their true audio value. Long ago my last turntable went the way that my last working VCR did in more recent years.

But on to more serious concerns raised by this subject: my role as amateur family archivist. How do the issues voiced by Alexander Stille's article apply to my personal family history collection, so painstakingly gathered over many years? Specifically:
  • Treasured family photograph prints, most from the early decades of the 20th-century through the 1990s

  • Paper copies of family letters and records

  • Scanned digital images of family heirloom photos and records whose originals are no longer accessible

  • Audio tapes of my grandfather's voice

  • A wedding video on VHS (provided none too cheaply by video photographers)

  • More recent images taken via digital camera
How will all of these items stand up to the test of time? Some better than others, it seems. As Susan Kitchens explains in her article entitled Preserving Your Digital Memories, digital materials are more vulnerable than physical ones, such as photographic prints and paper documents. What I value and enjoy viewing via digital media today may not be usable by those a generation or so after me.

Are you as concerned as I am that much of our family history collections will have been gathered all for naught? Susan recommends the Library of Congress' Digital Preservation website's What You Can Do webpage. Stop by Susan's blog Family Oral History Using Digital Tools for a link to an online quiz about digital media to test your knowledge of the technology to which so many of us are entrusting much of our genealogical collections.

I personally intend to continue to educate myself on technology and its realities, along with the options I have for preserving my treasured family memories. Thanks to Sally and Susan for the good tips. I hope you'll consider their good advice as I am. I have too much time, effort and heart invested in my family research and collections to let it all be lost easily.


  1. Thank you for this timely reminder and for the tips on where to go to find out what we can do. I have so many photographs and documents that need to be put in digital form, as well as music in vinyl form that needs to be converted. And since, as you pointed out, digital materials are more vulnerable than physical ones, it would also be nice to make extra physical copies.

  2. Great post - I have an article called "Future Proofing Your Data" which is coming out in the next issue of Digital Genealogist - it deals with the very same problems you discuss here.

  3. Lisa,

    Thanks for the shout out! Great article. We all need to be aware of saving the present while searching for the past. (Why do I suddenly get nostalgic thinking about cranking microfilm?)


  4. I find it all depressing. I had our old family movies transferred to VHS. Now I need to have those transferred to DVD. I'm certain that very shortly thereafter I will have to have them transferred to some other medium. I'm scanning all that I can but hope long will .tiff and .jpeg be around? I don't have room to store hard copies of everything so I'll keep transferring to new mediums as necessary. You've reminded us that we have to stay current if we want all of our hard work to survive.

  5. the thing we have to remember is that technology is always backwards compatible.

    Its no good just having one copy in one place though, you have to make multiple copies, paper, VHS, DVD/CD and then distribute them to trusted heads of family. Also leave a master copy of base data, with the lawyer or in a safety deposit box and refer to it in your will.

    I am currently working on putting all my data into a hardback book, using this

    Apart from the above I try to ensure other family members know what I'm doing, and regularly send them snippets and updates in email, via the web or paper copies, so that if anything should happen before my work is complete several people were aware of my work and my progress.


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