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How Digital Technology Threatens Family History

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Michael J. Leclerc

Michael J. Leclerc
Director of Special Projects

One of the most contentious conversations one can have around records at the moment is the issue of digital preservation. When it comes to electronic images, one thing is certain: there is currently no complete consensus. Archivists have long discussed issues surrounding the types of images that should be used for archival preservation. Consensus has formed around high-quality TIFF images (and some is building for the new JPEG 200 image, although not previous versions of JPEG). Unfortunately, there are still major concerns.


Electronic images will need to be migrated from machine to machine to ensure their continued preservation. Software compatibility issues may arise. Future budgetary problems may force governments to choose to lose records that they cannot afford to upgrade. And what happens in the event of a crash? Images can be lost forever.


An article by Sharifa Kalokola published on Sunday in The Citizen (in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) shows that this concern is global. In the article, entitle “How Digital Technology Threatens Family History.” Kalokola discusses how digital photography and social networking sites have impacted genealogy. She says “Admittedly, the digital technology has made it a lot easier to take photos of family and process them within seconds. But with the fragility of the digital equipment most of us use to preserve important information and family photos, is family history not under threat?”


Kalokola also quoted Makarius Peter, a historian and archivist at the University of Dar es Sallam, who states that “Some day this generation will appear like it never existed. With no photo albums to pass family history it is very easy to fade away from the memories of the future generation.” He goes on to discuss how technology has made people lazy.


In my own world, I try to make paper prints of photographs that I want to ensure will be around in the future. As for the images on Facebook, many of them I will not mind losing when Facebook disappears.


The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, has started on a project to scan original records. Vital records, tax lists, and other valuable records will be scanned. While applauding the efforts to create a paperless office with easier access, the next step in the process is heart-wrenching for any historian or archivist to hear. After scanning, the original records are set to be destroyed. A recent article in the Lowell Sun, “No ‘Magic Solution’ for Lowell’s Paper Trail,” discusses the issues facing the city. Remarkably, it seems that no historical societies or archives have been approached about preserving the originals once they have been scanned. Legal requirements may prevent some materials from being turned over to private hands, but certainly if an original is facing destruction it would be better to have the originals preserved elsewhere if possible.


Electronic images serve a valuable purpose, but when organizations exist specifically to preserve original documents, one would think that they should be utilized. That goes for individuals and private organizations as well as governments. Descendants of Irish immigrants are greatly benefitting from the preservation of nineteenth-century bank records that include locations of origin in Ireland. And how many researchers have leaped for joy when discovering a photograph of their ancestor in a historical or genealogical society? Go through your photographs and make sure to print off some for the future. You might even consider donating a copy to your local historical or genealogical society.

Posted by Michael Leclerc at 04/08/2011 02:27:01 PM | 

I found this post to be very educational. Thank you for broadening my knowledge of this subject. No doubt its a great piece of writing as well. Thanks
Posted by: Sheets Marlon ( Email | Visit ) at 5/5/2012 11:18 AM

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