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The stuff of memories

A little over a week ago, I was in Kodiak on a consulting job with the Kodiak College library. They’re going to be creating a Kodiak room, and wanted some advice on organization, facilities, so forth. I always learn a lot on consulting jobs, but what really stuck out in my mind from this one was a conversation I had with the librarians there over dinner one night. Since we were right in the midst of the holiday season, we got to talking about holiday memories and how we keep those in holiday cards and letters and photographs and such. One of the librarians was regretting the loss of long family letters and how those have been replaced by emails or Facebook, or other social media sites, and I suppose figuring she’d have a natural ally in an archivist, said that it was also sad for the long-term, that all those family letters aren’t being created anymore, so what would happen in future?

I thought for a moment, and then realized I don’t entirely agree with her. On two levels. First, I’m not so sure those things really existed for a lot of people in the first place. Sure, for my family, my parents’ generation still sends out those “family holiday letters” that are now run off on a printer or on a copy machine instead of a mimeograph, and occasionally I return the favor. But I’ve (by default) become the archivist for the family photographs in recent years and I can tell you that we really don’t have many family holiday photographs that were taken after I turned 5.  We simply didn’t take a lot of photos. I’m guessing we’re not alone in that. Worse yet, even in my own memory, most of those holiday seasons are a blur. I don’t really recall them. Without photos, I don’t have a memory of them. So was there really that documentary record in the first place? I’d also note that nobody has saved those generic letters, either.

And second, I think this generation (broadly defined) is documenting ourselves much better than we have in years. The easy access of digital cameras and social networking sites allows us to take and share photographs at a level that is simply unprecedented. We have text messages on our phones, we have lots of correspondence going back and forth electronically.  And speaking of phones and to paraphrase a really smart guy: the voice conversation (i.e. telephone) was the really great robber of history. Unless somebody deliberately taped those conversations, they are gone. But with the move to email and chat and texting, there is at least an electronic trace of those conversations.

Which brought me to another realization.  That for many years, people have been bemoaning the move to electronic records. Fear of long-term lack of sustainability wasn’t all that wrong. Many people still think if you want to save an electronic file for a long time you should burn it to cd or dvd and if you want to see an archivist or records manager shudder, just say that to him/her.  All those records on floppy disk (lucky if they’re the 3″ jobs because we still have those drives in our computers, but what about the 5 1/4 or 8″ ones? Or bigger?) All those records saved to file formats that weren’t supported by later iterations of the software–if the software even continued to survive.

But is it really that bad out there for longevity? I’m not so sure about that. The major word-processing, spreadsheet, and database applications are now being built to recognize all previous files (plus some from other software companies) so we can plug in that 3.5″ floppy disk and read that Wordperfect 3.2 file on our current software suite and even better, transfer the file to one of our servers. It’s not always pretty, but it’s there. The Adobe people allowed the PDF format to become an ISO standard in 2008, meaning (in a really bad layman’s translation) that even if the file type were to go away eventually, the programming that goes into it is now public which means that people could build readers to decipher the code of a file and reconstruct it.   Server memory space seems to get cheaper every year. Library of Congress is now archiving Twitter. Can FaceBook, Flickr, YouTube, WordPress or Blogspot be all that far behind? I have friends who are working in the electronic content management (ECM) field who are working on these very issues of how to make sure the documentation done within electronic media–specifically the social media types of things–can survive.

So I’m feeling rather positive about these sorts of things these days. Have I figured it out yet? No, can’t say that I’m certain that my FaceBook presence will outlast me in some archives somewhere (if it even should), but from what I can tell, that option isn’t far off. Because lots of talented people are working on this very problem and one of these days, we’ll start to see the solutions come through.

So this holiday season whether you pull out your old 35mm camera or your little Flip MinoHD, take a few images for the archivists of the future. And for your own memories. We did, this morning. And since an image would mean nothing without the metadata, that’s Megan, myself, and MC on the 3rd floor of the Consortium Library in front of the east-facing windows. 2010/12/22. Kate Gordon of the Dean’s office here at the Consortium Library took the photo using my pink Olympus Stylus-7010. And yes, in case you were wondering, I’ve given the image file a logical name and saved it within our hierarchical file structure on one of our backed-up servers.

We wish you a wonderful holiday season filled with all the stuff of memories.

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