Ancestors we will never know, presage feelings we can never have; now go forth and time travel on the web
December 24, 2010 3:03 PM   Subscribe

This topic is best summarized with a question; what would it be worth to you to have a video of your great-grandparents? How might your children or grandchildren appreciate your efforts at personal archiving?

What a wonderful feeling, watching the ones we love.
Our photo albums, letters, home movies and paper documents are a vital link to the past. Personal information we create today has the same value. The only difference is that much of it is now digital. Instructions and best practices for preserving your; Digital Photographs, Digital Audio, Digital Video, Electronic Mail, Personal Digital Records, Websites.

VIDEO: "Why Digital Preservation is Important for You." Simple, practical strategies for personal digital preservation. The Library of Congress is making an effort to bring several ideas to the attention of the public.
"As new technology emerges and current technology becomes obsolete, we need to actively manage our digital possessions to help protect them and keep them available for years to come. This video offers simple and practical strategies for personal digital preservation."
Download Personal Archiving Brochure (PDF, 1.7 mb)

There are something like 5 billion cellphones [670.60 Million in India: PDF], nearly half of which have cameras.

In last years 'State of the Coalition' (of Networked Information), Clifford Lynch highlighted four points:
  1. Archives and special collections/memory organizations have long been largely privatized (ex,, world vital records [pepsi]) momentum in private archivisation, began with hardcore genealogy, now, to document your family, upload photos, movies, diaries, or audio recordings, (ex. Magnes museumA museum containing Jewish history) is becoming more common. Many new (public) players (storycorps [aural histories], public organizations like BBC, and others moving into large scale public oral history)
  2. The future is heavily multimedia. (ex data on digital images, vs behavior with film photography, the notion that one will get hundreds of thousands of photos from a wide array of people) this is a sharp shift away from seeing images/motion images as esoteric, also, expect less “described” sets of information. What used to be a “specialty problem” - now almost all archiving operations will encounter issues of this sort.
  3. Deposit agreements; transfer of things into a special collection/archive Needing to think about what goes into deeds of gift. Considering accidental uncovering of embarrassing or sensitive information. Some examples; many people don’t think about exactly HOW MUCH can be ‘uncovered’ from an average persons computer (browser histories etc). This suggests a need to have a relationship of trust between a ‘donor’ and the archivist. Suggestion; some standardized models for a gift/deed/will.
  4. Strategic point. Waiting until people die before reaching out to families will be an increasingly ineffectual tactic, especially in a “cloud” based, impermanent cyberspace. Digitally intestate (forgetting to pass on a password/login/ account info….) Perhaps reaching out earlier, during lives to request a “promise/will” for full access to the “web/document” presence of a person. But… when do you start? The national library of wales; part of their mission is to capture the welsh literature. Reaching out early in the careers of welsh writers, this is do-able for an enterprise on this smaller scale, but how does this work in a larger scale research library, do we start reaching out to begin relationships with young people as they are “up and coming”… Who fits this category?
It could get less and less practical to fully document the entire digital lives of certain individuals. What are some ways memory companies can innovate/drive archivists, conceptually. We are all archivists now.

Memento wants to make it as straightforward to access the Web of the past as it is to access the current Web.
If you know the URI of a Web resource, the technical framework proposed by Memento allows you to see a version of that resource as it existed at some date in the past, by entering that URI in your browser like you always do and by specifying the desired date in a browser plug-in [FireFox Plugin for time-traveling on the web]. Or you can actually browse the Web of the past by selecting a date and clicking away. Whatever you land upon will be versions of Web resources as they were around the selected date. Obviously, this will only work if previous versions are available somewhere on the Web. But if they are, and if they are on servers that support the Memento framework, you will get to them.

Memento: Time Travel for the Web (tools for developers/those interested in participating)
This project seeks to integrate preservation capabilities into standard Web practices. The project assumes that the core technologies for creating a “preservation-ready” web are in place; what is needed is a concerted, high-profile effort to instantiate the technologies in simple protocols, methodologies and software.

(Memento just won the 2010 digital preservation award)

The Memento project researches new ideas related to Web Archiving, focusing on the integration of Web Archives into a natural and regular Web navigation.

This Memento experiment is supported by the Library of Congress under the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.

EDUCAUSE has completed posting podcast interview from the Fall 2009 CNI (Coalition for Networked Information) Fall Task Force Meeting on December 14-15, 2009, Washington, DC. The interviews are organized below (don't miss this years update from Clifford Lynch, as he looks back at some CNI history, and also shares some of the most fascinating up and coming projects and details to do with Networked Information, data preservation and all that goes with that [a very interesting point he makes is that new initiatives requiring public science projects to include specific plans for data preservation and sharing, like the new NIH policies, are not asking for [thoroughly unrealistic] 'infinite' preservation, but rather, the much more realistic goal of five year storage, allowing for format migration, and analysis of data value.

  • Welcome, 2010 in Review, & Overview of the 2010-2011 CNI Program Plan

  • DuraCloud: Preservation Infrastructure in the Cloud

  • As Lives Are Documented Digitally: Strategies for Cultural Memory Organizations

  • Learning Commons: What's Working?

  • VIVO: Enabling National Networking of Scientists

  • Web 2.0 and the Study of History Through a Living Learning Community

  • Codes, Clouds and Constellations: Open Science in the Data Decade

  • Interoperable Annotation: Perspectives from the Open Annotation Collaboration

  • Memento: Time Travel for the Web

  • Welcome, 2009 in Review, & Overview of the 2009-2010 CNI Program Plan

  • Beyond Illustration: New Dimensions of 3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage Sites and Monuments

  • Revisiting Institutional Repositories

  • How Are We Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents?
  • posted by infinite intimation (21 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
    There's always the alternative: living a memorable life.
    posted by koeselitz at 3:06 PM on December 24, 2010 [12 favorites]

    With the accelerating profusion of video of people's lives, our great grandchildren may well pay good money not to have to see it.
    posted by fairmettle at 3:22 PM on December 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

    Given that the collective memory of our species now seems limited to weeks, and the total lack of attention paid by consumers to the lifespan of digital data, I'll guess that most efforts along these lines will prove to be less than fruitful.
    posted by dbiedny at 3:27 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

    In the movie Contact, the opening scene has the camera pull away from Earth, highlighting the fact that we've been broadcasting radio and television signals out into space for a century or so. An observer far away would hear faint whispers, then broadcasts limited to the most important events and the most powerful individuals, and then inexorably more and more information - all of humanity's progress and foibles and promise and missteps out there for anyone to see.

    Your post makes me feel the same way about genealogy and what is known about the people of the past. Most everyone who has lived on the planet is unremembered. But suddenly, we have records - the advent of writing are the faint whispers chronicling the most important events and the existence of people of power and means. Then print and photography means a much fuller picture is available to future generations. And now, with the advent of digital transmission and ultra-cheap storage, the flood of information that will save and record much, much more about us to our children than has even been bequeathed before.

    As I watch my current students (young adolescents) splay all of their experiences and insecurities and explorations on to Facebook, I wonder what it will be like for future generations to see not just some version of a "finished project" in their parents, but be able to glimpse in much greater detail the adults of their lives in formation.

    Whether the information is archived in a way that saves it for the long term, and what the future makes of the past, are the questions left to be answered, I think.
    posted by Chanther at 3:35 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

    With the accelerating profusion of video of people's lives, our great grandchildren may well pay good money not to have to see it.

    I imagine there's a good sci-fi short story about a dystopian future, where the children of many generations into the future no longer live their own lives, but instead live through edited simulacra collected from decades and decades of their predecessors' recorded footage. One of them, we'll call him "Neo", tries to break free from this hellish digital sansara.
    posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:46 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I have a tintype of one of my great-great-grandmothers wearing full widow's weeds, including the multi-tiered cap thingie. It charms me. I can imagine that if it was a video of her giving me a lecture about sin or whatever, I would hate it.
    posted by Sidhedevil at 4:28 PM on December 24, 2010

    I don't even have a picture of my parents. Great-grandparents? meh
    posted by Ardiril at 4:33 PM on December 24, 2010

    My mother inherited some reel-to-reels of her family camping, traveling, skiing, etc. She had them all transferred to DVD, and during a visit home we sat and watched them together. I never got a chance to meet my grandparents, or my great-grandparents. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to see film of my grandmother waving to my mom and her siblings from a hospital window after giving birth to my aunt, or my grandfather setting up camp somewhere in Yorkshire. There was a short clip of my grandmother and my great-grandmother strolling arm in arm through a plaza in Italy while on vacation.
    It was a wonderful gift to see those moving images, and it helped me to feel a greater connection to these people whom I never got to meet or get to know.
    posted by swingbraid at 4:43 PM on December 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

    Actually, Chanter, with the imminent (two decades perhaps) death of megawatt terrestrial transmission towers broadcasting over low frequencies, this planet will become mostly silent once again, as higher frequencies (cell towers, for example) don't escape the atmosphere and travel off into space. Indeed, in a hundred years with more and more nearfield communication, the only non-natural emissions we'll be making will be slightly elevated heat levels.

    2 terabyte hard drives are apparently on sale tomorrow for $60.
    posted by seanmpuckett at 4:58 PM on December 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

    We are going to die, our descendants will forget us, and there's nothing we can do about it.

    posted by r_nebblesworthII at 5:15 PM on December 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

    I was a microfilm engineer and media archivist for almost twenty years, following in my father's footsteps, until the industry turned so cheap, mercenary, and false that I couldn't stand it anymore. The last challenges of that career were entirely tied up in fighting salesmen who'd go into meetings with various organizations with archives needing to be digitized. Science be damned, they'd tell client after client that yes, CDs are archival. Magneto-optical discs are archival. 8mm tape is archival. HD storage is archival.

    Fucking salesmen. In the end, I gave up, quit the business, and went on to a new career.

    Whole libraries worth of data will burn, fizzling off into digital nothingness.

    Fortunately, my family started out on the right foot. We've got mountains of audio recordings, starting out with recordable records made in boardwalk booths and with expensive recorders snuck out of offices to document family stories. We've got cartridge wire recordings, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes so old that they're actually Norelco brand tapes, a few Elcaset tapes (hastily transferred before the death of the last Elcaset deck I've ever seen), DATs, CDs, and various digital file formats.

    The common wisdom about such things is usually wrong, too. Our cassettes from '67 play just fine. Recovering the earliest digital recordings, on the other hand, was a pain in the ass. I've got collections duplicated, cross-transcribed, stored in geographically disparate locations. Maybe no one will ever care that so much effort was made.

    I care, though.

    Maybe the constant scrutiny of the lens is the difference, and the way that we feel like we haven't experienced an event unless we've done so from behind a camera, for those perfect youtube moments. It's a risk, to be sure.

    Still, my sister's nephew had the misfortune to have his father die, shockingly young and seemingly without reason, on the morning of his birthday, and the only recording of his voice is a cassette of him singing "Margaritaville" at a cheesy pre-karaoke stand on the boardwalk. We don't anticipate an early departure, but to only remembered in the words of Jimmy Buffett isn't much of a legacy.

    You wonder where you come from, or you find yourself forgetting the voices that once brought you comfort. When you're lucky, there's something left, more than just stories.

    Fortunately, my apple didn't fall far from my father's slightly paranoid tree.

    This is why I can hear him, fifty-seven years later, begging Arthur Godfrey for airplane money, in a high-pitched Southern twang I never knew.

    This is why I can hear my mother's day-to-day life when I was just a squeaky toddler, obsessed with Twinkies, janitor snowmen surrounded by crabs, drawing machines and pumps and hands with fifteen fingers on each hand, and deciding that I wouldn't hug or kiss my father because he had hair on his face that smells, in the days when I was first declared "a different child."

    It's all part of the roadmap from oblivion to contentment—to now.

    It's all just me, just the component parts of me, and when I need the comfort, and the reminder that there is always something new and amazing ahead of me, I can just dial up these little fragments and revisit.

    In the meantime, I increasingly share my mother's bemused and slightly world-weary view, set neatly against my father's absurd ambitions, though I'd like Arthur Godfrey to buy me a nice BMW R75/6 with panniers that don't leak instead of an airplane. It turns out that aviation wasn't really the world of the future after all, alas. I've got hair on my face, and it smells, too, because I use the same mustache wax my dad preferred.

    In a million years, I'll be forgotten, along with everyone I ever knew and loved. In the meantime, though, it's good to pretend that it all matters, because, right here and now, it does.

    Because I'm not reproducing, my genes stop here.

    My stories may linger, though, whether on the page or out there, drifting in the clouds.
    posted by sonascope at 5:27 PM on December 24, 2010 [28 favorites]

    I was charged by my mother with restoring four old Dictaphone belts -- the wax kind, not magnetic -- with recordings of our family from the early 50's. The Internet led me to an antique audio shop with the right machine. By the time I had cassette dubs of the belts in hand, she'd suffered a devastating stroke and was only intermittently communicative. I finally visited with a Walkman and a pair of headphones and played some for her. Her eyes cleared for a moment. "Amazing," she said.
    posted by tspae at 6:09 PM on December 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

    The problem is that by that time, whatever video format I use to preserve films of myself will be so far obsolete that they wouldn't be able to play it anyway.
    posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:59 PM on December 24, 2010

    The problem is that by that time, whatever video format I use to preserve films of myself will be so far obsolete that they wouldn't be able to play it anyway.

    The whole idea is to pick a format, or variety of formats, such that they'll still be playable, or at least easy to successively convert to newer formats as time passes.

    I think you are being unfairly fatalistic in simply assuming that nothing created today will be playable in a century. There have been some very poorly-designed formats and media that won't, but I'm not sure there's any reason why we can't create a digital video format that will be playable into the future.

    The problem has mostly been that "archive friendliness" hasn't been a criteria that many people have been evaluating or selecting formats for, until very recently, particularly for video.

    (I think digital still photos are a bit ahead in this regard. Using dcraw, you can convert proprietary 'raw' files created by a camera into PPM, which is a "lowest common denominator" file format, something so trivial -- and inefficient -- that it would be readable in any non-apocalyptic future, even if for some reason JPEG falls by the wayside.)

    The main problem will be if the continual increase in data storage density that has dominated the 20th century, and which has made it relatively easy to roll a personal archive forward onto new media even if the archive grows over time, doesn't continue. If storage density hit a true maximum, then it might start to become onerous to keep copy everything forward. But for the immediate future things seem to look OK on that front.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 PM on December 24, 2010

    This is deeply interesting. The technological problems are formidable but possibly solvable. But the metadata problems, and the problem of transmitting meaning across time, are much harder to solve I think. The finer grained the data are, the more they are tied into local time and culture, and the harder it is to make this meaningful across time, particularly once it drifts over the event horizon of living memory. Especially with rich media, how do you describe and index all the dimensions of the content of that media in ways that will be useful in a hundred years?
    posted by carter at 9:15 PM on December 24, 2010

    That was fantastic, tspae. Duly flagged and favorited.
    posted by Ritchie at 5:11 AM on December 25, 2010

    Digital, schmigital. The best gift I got for Christmas this year was a vial of my great grandfather's tomato seeds, which have been lovingly propagated by my uncle every year since my great-grandfather died some 15+ years ago.

    I cannot wait, in the summer of 2011, to relive my childhood memories of what tomatoes SHOULD taste like, because to me that's a much more concrete way to not only feel like I have my grandfather back again, but to honor his extraordinary skills as a gardener, too. Don't get me wrong, it would be really nice to have videos of them and stuff -- everyone on that side of the family was a prodigious storyteller -- but this kind of heirloom means a lot more to me.
    posted by at 8:05 AM on December 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

    A friend of mine just got engaged, and they posted the pictures to Facebook. I thought of this post, because any children that they might have will be able to see the exact moment that he proposed to her, and her expression, and the room, and everything else.

    That seems like a new phenomena to me.
    posted by codacorolla at 8:50 AM on December 25, 2010

    There's always the alternative: living a memorable life.

    That's not an alternative, it's just a snarky comment. You can live a memorable life or not, you can document that life or not.
    posted by me & my monkey at 9:17 AM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I've just finished compiling a photographic history book for the town where I live, and out of the thousands of submissions we had, we had to cull so many beautiful photos because there was no accompanying information.

    All we needed was an approximate year, within a decade, and an approximate location. Names were an added bonus! But you'd be amazed how many people had been handed down heirloom photos without even that basic information. It was quite sad listening to some of the stories - "this is a precious photo we found wrapped in tissue paper in my grandmother's papers after she died. But we have no idea who it is, and no-one else knows..."

    That experience taught me a lot about the importance of archiving properly.
    posted by indienial at 11:28 PM on December 25, 2010

    Quite happy watching my Wedding on Super8 film.
    posted by jbalwen52 at 4:32 PM on January 6, 2011

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