While we have instant access to more information, photographs and videos than any other generation before, some fear, “easy come, easy go.” What will future generations of Hoosiers, Americans and humans on a large scale, be taught about the life we currently know?
History is always in the making, as is the way it is recorded. From stone carvings to handwritten accounts, printed material to digital copies stored in the cloud, the way we save memories and information has changed with developing technology, and historians have had to adapt along with these changes.
While it may seem recording and preserving history is easier because of the more widespread access to this technology, in reality, it creates many other issues. Who determines what is important to preserve? Are all viral videos, Internet memes and “selfies” saved on Instagram accounts worthy of a place in our generation’s history? What are we doing to assure that the next generation has an accurate picture of what our lives really looked like?
Cinda May, chair of Special Collections at Indiana State University’s Cunningham Memorial Library, fears that because new media is so much more delicate, future generations may be left with less historical artifacts than ever before.
“Books and paper and pens are so solid. Printed photos don’t need to be decrypted to be seen, they’re just there. Now, we have to have the proper equipment, correct software, and uncorrupted data. It’s all so fragile,” May said.
Maintaining the equipment to be able to access the information stored with current technology has becoming a large part of historical data-keeping. As our generation moved from printed documents to floppy disks to CDs to USB drives to cloud storage, maintaining the equipment necessary to read the information in those forms has become a challenge. Some historians worry that while we spend so much time moving the information into current technology, we forget to preserve current events, leaving gaps in our present record-keeping.
The Special Collections department at Indiana State consists of the university archives, rare books and manuscripts, the permanent art collection and digital initiatives. May acts as the project manager for a digital memory project that State hosts called Wabash Valley Visions & Voices, whose purpose is to document the lives of Hoosiers through the sharing of photos, stories and artifacts to an online system. Spanning six counties and incorporating information from many partners and contributors, collaborative digital memory projects like this allow many to have a say in what survives for the next generations.
But exactly how safe is our history in these new digital systems? With the constant presence of social media and file sharing in our everyday life, it is more important than ever to back up files and have multiple copies in different places for safe keeping, she said. While backing up this data may seem like a tedious process, it’s very important to help assure that issues with technology failure will not spell the loss of all information hosted through this method.
Information is now what is called “born-digital,” meaning that there is no-hard copy, as there had been with film media or printed texts. This makes it difficult to switch from format to format along with technological developments as this information is formed from tiny bits that combine to create larger pieces and switching those tiny bits into different versions of the same tiny bits is more complex than it seems, May said. Digital pixels create images and sequences of numbers create files where documents are stored. These formats create issues moving forward since the original copies are typically not “hard copies,” that historians can go back to if a system crashes.
Maintaining the content of these files that are now making up our historical archives is incredibly important for future generations, according to May. Between loss from natural disasters, wars and carelessness, the retelling of history has always been incomplete, but, with born-digital information, “we run the risk of losing so much more than what we have always lost over time with paper artifacts,” May said, “if our whole lives are digital, our whole lives are at risk of being reduced to just memories at any moment because we can’t guarantee that these formats will be viable in five or even ten years.”
However improbable it is that all record-keeping technology become unusable before converting the necessary parts, it is a worrisome thought for some historians to be so heavily reliant on such technology whose lifespan is only a few years before becoming obsolete.
Along with all the worries, historians see the tremendous value that these tools bring to modern-day record keeping.
“It’s a wonderful thing that everyone can carry a scrapbook’s worth of photos in their pockets thanks to smart phones, it makes it possible for everyone to contribute to our history by being a kind of citizen historian,” said May. One of the challenges that historians are facing is how to collect the photos and documentation that people are creating every day and getting it into historical systems to be saved and used later.
May said she believes cultural memory professionals like librarians, archivists and curators “… have to build the bridges that make it easy for this generation of citizen historians living the experiences and documenting the people, places, and events of your time, to share that with a library or historical society or museum before those memories are gone to society as a whole.”
In order to avoid cheating future generations out of a vivid picture of our lives and experiences, May says we must start making social media as large a part of our generation’s historical documentation process as it is a part of our daily routines.
While we don’t have to save every one of the thousands of photos we take or documents we create with a few simple clicks, preserving the significant memories can provide a worthwhile understanding for others to come. The access to a variety of digital information is one of its greatest assets, she said. It opens doors for many more people to be able to experience history that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
“What we do now, will effect what future researchers know about us and what was important to us. We’re in a transition period, and we have to fight through the awkward parts so that our digital collections can be just as influential and informative as what we have now,” said May. It’s our job as a society to give these opportunities to future generations, just as they were given to us, she said.