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Editor's Note: Who Will Remember You?

May 09, 2009, 00:03 (11 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Digital storage is fragile. I'm sure this not news to you. If you have any computer files from the 1990s can you still read them? Are they on a readable medium? In a readable format? It is a chronic problem for businesses, but I think it's a more significant problem for normal, everyday people. Is the history of you and your family going to survive beyond the latest fad file format or storage widget?

My family is pretty well-documented. My antecedents were immigrants and homesteaders. Even though English was not the native language of any of them, except my English grandfather, many of them were talented writers. Or at least they seem talented by modern standards, with beautiful handwriting and good grammar and spelling. Some were well-educated, some had only a few years of grammar school. Many of them were letter-writers and diary-keepers, the old-fashioned way-- on paper. So there is a pretty good trove of material documenting their everyday lives.

There are also bales of photographs, some going back to the 19th century. They have the same problem that modern digital photographs have-- not all of them have useful metadata, such as names, dates, or locations. So the oldtimers in the family get pestered to fill in the blanks. It's not exactly library science, but it gets the job done. But it's a time-bombed method, because when those older generations are finally gone so is all that knowledge, and a way of life.

So what is going to happen to all of the uncountable digital photos, emails, and movies? Sure, probably the majority could disappear tomorrow and no one would miss them. But a lot of them would be missed. One of my favorite things to is go back and look at old photos and letters. When I was a little kid my most important unanswered questions were where did people go to the bathroom in the olden days, and what did women do in the days before Kotex? Like on the Oregon Trail, or when they were working in logging camps, or out working the fields that were farthest from the house? Nobody would tell me. Nobody ever talked about those things in books like Little House on the Prairie or even Ralph Moody's excellent stories, which were pretty detailed about everything else. But eventually I found out from snooping in old diaries and photos. (I don't know which is worse, people who never want to tell little kids anything, or the ones with chronic Too Much Information syndrome.)

My sister and her husband are rehabbing a historic hotel and finding all kinds of neat old stuff. Old newspapers, magazines, posters, photos, ads, signs, and all the usual furniture, implements, and leftovers. The idea of opening a wall and find a box of Zip drives doesn't sound nearly as exciting as finding a stash of old newspapers.

I rely on paper for the most important things. Nothing beats a hard copy, and you don't need any special electronic gear to read it. I want my grand-nieces and -nephews, and their kids to be able to dig through some boxes and learn a few things about Aunt Carla. (Hey, I have three grand-nieces and two grand-nephews! Aieee!) Though if they want to know how people went to the bathroom in the Dark Ages of my youth, I'll tell them, I'm sure they can handle it.