Will Your Family History Survive the Digital Dark Age?

by Kathy Sisson December 05, 2017

a few books stacked up

In college, I worked as an archives assistant in the basement of the university library for $5.55 and hour. It was one of my favorite jobs ever. At the time, we were scanning and uploading the collection so it could be accessed online. The work was essentially data entry, but I loved feeling connected to the people who’d passed through my campus before me. This love of history runs a level deeper when it comes to my own family. I’m the self-appointed family archivist and cherish tangible artifacts from generations past. From the engraved necklace of a great great aunt who shared my name to the handwritten valentine from my grandpa to my grandma. I peruse thousands of family photos and sometimes gather some for a timely Facebook post. Now that I have kids of my own, I feel constantly torn between living in the moment and capturing the moment in my own little family history. Maybe that’s just part of parenting today, but if you’re the family archivist (and there’s one in every family), see if any of this also sounds familiar:
  • Upgrading your phone solely for more storage and a better camera.
  • Orchestrating cross-generational photo shoots on the rare occasions your relatives are all in one place.
  • Charting the family tree on Ancestry.com and including Ancestry DNA on your Christmas list.
  • Fantasizing about Henry Louis Gates Jr. exploring your lineage for a personalized episode of PBS’s “Find Your Roots”.
Okay, maybe that last one is just me. I’m happy today’s technology has made my archivist’s job of collecting, organizing, and “preserving items determined to have long-term value” a little easier. But imagine my horror when I recently learned about a chilling concept called the “digital dark age.” According to Wikipedia, it’s an imagined time, somewhere in the future, where human history won’t be recorded because we won’t have the software to read electronic historical documents, much less view everything we capture on our phones. Gone are the reel-to-reels and film negatives we could at least hold up to a light to examine. My own childhood movies were transferred from VHS to DVDs long ago, and soon they’ll need another file conversion. The promise of a “digital dark age” is enough to send this archivist into panic mode. So what’s to be done about it? According to a BBC Science and Environment article, Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” has proposed a solution. But in the meantime, I’m trying to use our existing technology to create tangible artifacts capable of being passed on for posterity, just in case Mr. Cert can’t pull it off. Here are some ideas that, I should note, are in order of difficulty:

Printing your photos

There is still something special about holding a hard copy of a photo in your hands. Do it the old fashioned way at a drugstore, or consider one of many convenient apps like Groovebook that automatically prints, ships, and sends your phone’s photos each month as a handy book with tear away pages.

Recording the family stories

I’m kicking myself that I never brought a dictaphone to record my favorite hilarious and harrowing stories from my grandparents before they passed away. At the next family gathering, I’m going to try some of these tips to record my uncles retelling some of the classics after a few too many Old Fashioneds. (Then I’ll find an app to transcribe the recordings that I will then print out and store in a fireproof box. Take that, Digital Dark Age!)

Making family history kid-friendly

Starting the stories young can surely help them sink in, too. I made a custom family tree board book as a gift for my godson through Pint Size Productions. Since his mom is also related to me, I was lucky enough to have three generations of photos for him on hand. I added one childhood photo of a relative on the left-hand page, introducing the person – “This is Mary” – and then added one grown-up photo of that relative on the right-hand page: “Mary grew up to be your grandmother.” Simple story. Special artifact.

Assembling year-in-review photo books

This can take approximately eight to 80 hours. In the past, I’ve made an outline of the highlights from the year, organized my photos accordingly and filled in the extra space with candids from day-to-day life. I’m currently two years behind. Google Photos, Chatbooks, or Snapfish now auto populate one in seconds, and they are very likely, nearly, as great. While these activities can help temper the archivist’s anxiety over losing something important, they might not help the parent who feels the perennial pull of their phone to capture each and every moment. For this, I’ve been trying my best to remember that memories experienced are so much better than memories catalogued. No software can replicate that.

Kathy Sisson


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