does your past have a future?

HourglassWould you deliberately set fire to your family’s photo albums? Wantonly wave an electromagnet over cassette recordings of your child’s first words? Smash your copy of the White Album into fragments with a hammer? Shred your grandparents’ love letters?

Of course not.

But if you’re using popular media formats to store your digital pictures, music, and e-mails, you might as well be.

Andrea Japzon wants you to ponder that — and then get busy preserving your digital legacy.

On her blog Everyday Archives, Andrea — a Ph.D. student in Drexel University’s College of Information Science & Technology — is exploring how people create and maintain “all the stuff that you keep to tell the stories of your life: emails, photos, awards, letters, art work, books, music, report cards, medical records, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings, degrees, and any number of other objects used to record and to remember.”

(Full disclosure: I participated in Andrea’s survey of digital media usage habits among library users, where I discovered that I’m guilty of more than a few bad habits myself.)

Andrea notes that while “memory institutions” (a terrific phrase) such as libraries, archives, and historical societies are aware of the problems of long-term digital preservation, few individuals think about how to preserve their digital heirlooms so that their children’s children will be able to enjoy them.

Will JPEGs, AVIs, and DOCs be readable in 75 years? Will they even survive long enough to be migrated to new formats? The answer is: probably not. Andrea writes:

“Through ignorance and/or benign neglect, valuable digital representations of personal memories intended for future generations will be lost, and representations of family and social histories will be lost to what has been called the ‘digital dark ages.'”

What can we do about this looming loss? Which digital formats offer the hardiest survival prospects? Where should we be storing information? How long will our media last? And why are JPEGs so bad for long-term storage, anyway? These are the kinds of questions that will be addressed on Everyday Archives.

As a former full-time archivist and records manager, I applaud Andrea’s efforts to bring this issue to the attention of the general public with original research that will offer useful data that we can really sink our teeth into.

Check out Everyday Archives today and participate in the discussion. Share your experiences, get good advice, and learn more about an issue that could determine whether your past has a future.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.