Saving the Past for the Future

They say that history always repeats itself. But, what if we are losing our history? How can that be with all the data floating around. Some people commemorate loved ones, both relatives and pets with photos and paintings. Dottie Dowling (see Facebook page) does wonderful photos, especially of animals and Carol McClees,,  is frequently commissioned to paint people’s pets so they have a memory of them.

Preserving Books

We are generating more data than at any time in history, but much of it is so ephemeral. Many older books are much more durable than modern books. That is because early books were written on parchment or printed on linen paper or things like that which were very stable. Then they found that you could make paper from wood pulp which was much cheaper. However, it naturally has acid in it unless it is specially treated to be neutral. This causes the paper to degrade over time. So libraries are actually having more trouble preserving some of the early books printed on wood pulp based paper whereas they are having minimal trouble preserving the earlier books printed on other materials.

Preserving Newspapers

Then there are the newspapers. They are printed on a cheap grade of paper, (with the catchy name of newsprint) that are not intended to last since it is expected that they will be read and discarded in a day or two. Libraries and museums that have newspaper collections are having even more trouble preserving these. Many are save by microfilming or now digitizing.

Preserving Film

The earliest films were made with a nitrate base which is very flamable and not very stable. So there is a race on to copy these old films onto or into other media, whether that be newer stable film or digitized. It would be a shame to lose these old films because they give us a visual glimpse into another time.

Preserving Correspondence

Before there were telephones and email and twitter, people wrote letters to each other. These letters give us great insight in historical figures and also into what was happening during different historical periods. Today it is rare for people to write letters. Historians are losing this valuable tool to be able to look back in time. The late 1900s and on into the 2000s, there will be much less that people leave behind. Even if emails are saved, the same care and thought does not go into them.

Preserving Computer Files

We may be compounding the problem by putting so much information online. As file formats change, it is already difficult to go back and read some old file formats, or old floppy disks. And that is only 10 or 20 years ago, not 100 or 200 years ago. What happens if this data is corrupted or there is an electromagnetic pulse that fries the computers the data is on? Will it be properly backed up? It will be interesting in the future to look back and see if this era with so much data floating around is surprisingly bereft of information about it.