Tag Archives: digital preservation

Is our digital lifestyle leading to a dark age for cultural heritage?

406286812_121ba20709_zIf you want to see the future of heritage, look no further than your computer screen.

I’ll explain what I mean. Right now, when we think about material heritage culture, most folks think about things like old photographs, written documents, buildings and sculpture. These objects that have been handed down since antiquity are perishable but, as physical products of our world, can be preserved with vigilance and a little luck.

Now think about it: what will your descendants have to remember you by? Your Facebook page? The digital photos on your computer?

This is an information golden age for our civilization, but it could easily be the dark ages historically if we’re not careful. It’s no surprise that things carved on rocks have survived the centuries, but I’ve lost enough data to tell you nothing stored on a hard drive–or even an online network–is necessarily forever. Factor into that the problems inherent in our “patch” culture and keeping files current on our computers, and you see the potential issues.

The term for these objects is “born digital.” In other words, they were created digitally and never printed on paper or existed as a physical object. There have been so many versions of software platforms and file formats in this still fairly young stage of personal computing, that there’s no way to save all of it. I’m not even necessarily saying we should. But it is worth us thinking about what we create on a daily basis and deciding how we could potentially save it to share our legacy after we’re gone.

Create a digital inventory today

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore how you can preserve different types of digital files that you might want to pass down. But that starts with actually knowing what you have and creating a system for updating it. To start getting a handle on your data, you need to create an inventory of what you have. That will take a little time, but all you need are six sheets of letter-sized paper and a pen.

  • Label each sheet of paper with one of the following titles: Digital Photographs, Digital Audio, Digital Video, Electronic Mail, Personal Digital Records, and Websites.
  • Schedule some time to assemble all the digital storage you own–current and old computers, external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and floppy disks.
  • Go through the contents of each one and note the disk name and general contents (thematically, not the name of each file) on the appropriate paper.
This decidedly non-digital approach will be important for really thinking about your files and creating a strategy for archiving and updating your data later, so try to do it in one sitting to make sure you catch everything. Next time, we’ll focus on the type of media that gives the most people trouble: digital photographs.I’ve recorded a couple of episodes of NCPTT’s Preservation Technology podcast with experts from the Library of Congress and the SAVE initiative regarding different aspects of digital preservation. Check them out if you can. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your approach for preserving today’s memories for the future.
Graphic image by De’Nick’nise on Flickr