We’re recording more history than ever, but how much will survive?
As I’ve researched for my Tri-State Tornado book, the number of photos I’ve encountered are barely in the triple digits. It was a hundred years ago and photography was cumbersome, but they exist. I’m not convinced the photos people take today on a phone will be available in a century.
Equally frustrating is the potential loss of newspapers that has benefited my research immensely. Newspapers.com has done an amazing job of scanning in newspapers and indexing them with solid OCR technology. But many of the papers in there hail from smaller, rural papers that don’t exist today. And those that do remain increasingly just post poorly formatted blocks of text on a website they can barely understand how to use. My hometown newspaper, The Salem Leader, recently stopped printing a physical paper. All that’s left is their website.
When I worked for the Washington County Historical Society, volunteers would take the paper and clip out the obituaries and other stories, then neatly paste them into bound books with indexes. It was slow, manual, and worked. Today, I don’t know what they do. If they’re anything like the museums I consult with today, people are taking terrible screenshots from their phone and printing hackneyed webpages and stuffing them into file folders. This is not sustainable.
The volume we’re producing does not match what we’re saving
During the January 4th, 2024 episode of ATP, John Siracusa suggested future historians will have plenty to work with as we’ve recorded more material than ever in human history. And that is correct: we are absolutely producing a lot of material. But producing and preserving are two different things.
After the publication of his groundbreaking book on John Adams, author David McCullough was asked what future historians will be able to use for research. His response was: “I don’t know. No one keeps a diary anymore.”
When researching for the book, McCullough sifted through the Adams papers housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society. There are over a thousand letters and papers there, all preserved. It’s believed that John and his wife Abigail had, perhaps, thought to preserve the papers for posterity. Unlike Thomas Jefferson who burned most all of his correspondence — particularly about his wife who preceded him in death, about whom we know nothing. We don’t even know what she looked like because he burned everything.
George and Martha Washington burned all their correspondence for privacy. That’s their right, but all we know about their relationship comes from roughly two letters found accidentally tucked under a desk drawer at Mount Vernon when a table was moved decades later.
I agree with Siracusa that, yes, we are recording a lot of material. But I do not believe we are recording it well, or anything that most people would reasonably care about or have access to.
The fault in digital storage as seen by the 9/11 photos
In the hours and days after the World Trade Center attacks, firefighters and first responders began photographing the scene. Many of those original photos were preserved — so we thought — on high-quality CD-Rs designed to last. But, in less than 20 years the CDs “tend to rot.” Now archivists are doing forensics on the disks to attempt to recover them, no doubt with newer technology, but likely facing the same issues in the next few decades.
This comes from one of the seminal events of the 21st century at a time when cameras were plentiful enough. If we as a society can’t even preserve that, what chance do normal people have?
How many of us have old diskettes, CDs, Zip disks, and even USB flash drives that presumably still work, but we don’t even have a way to plug them in? If someone handed me a CD-R full of photos, I have no more ability to work with that in 2024 than the 16mm film roll I uncovered in my grandmother’s house and have no way to work with, load, or view.
Diaries and the benefit of paper
Today’s best historians and biographers rely heavily on diaries. It’s why most presidents today still maintain some kind of diary, because as Jon Meacham discovered when writing George H.W. Bush’s biography, he “wanted to keep a brief note about each day’s events.” There’s simply too much for a president to remember years later about when what meeting happened with which person when.
McCullough has said most politicians “Would never dream of writing down a diary anymore because it can be subpoenaed.” That’s true, and a shame. We should have laws preserving diaries as extensions of our minds that puts them off-limits to investigators.
But it’s equally a shame that most normal people are uploading photos, tweets, videos, posts, blogs, and more at an astonishing rate — and there’s little chance they will be archived. What’s recorded today is uploaded into private storage accounts, encrypted drives and disks, proprietary social networks, and fragile business entities that are unlikely to survive the long test of a one or two-hundred-year run.
Even this website, of which I’ve maintained since I was about 13, is likely gone as soon as I die and the domain renewal bill lapses. Photos uploaded to Facebook are archived only at Facebook, and exist only so long as Facebook exists. Videos uploaded to YouTube exist only within Google’s servers, and given the gargantuan costs and scope of the storage, no one save maybe the Library of Congress could possibly archive all of it.
Even if we could archive it, is it possible that in a hundred years we’ll even have equipment that can render a JPG? I suspect archivists will have to re-invent systems just to render or reinterpret video codecs, file types, etc. This may be doable for more open standards like a JPG, but how about a .doc?
It’s all speculation, but I believe we are living in a time of the most information production ever and the least amount of preservation. When millennials are grandparents we joke that grandkids are going to find “Photos of grandma making a duck face,” but I’m not so sure they’ll find anything at all. In fact, my grandmother may have more photos in existence than millennial grandmothers will.
The students I teach at Indiana University today default to posting reels and messages set to disappear. Sometimes by design in apps like Instagram or TikTok, but that carries over into their messaging habits. Their digital lives are ephemeral, lasting at most only a few hours or a day. That’s probably smart (for them) in the short term. But they’re basically ghosts since they write nothing down.
It’s also why I believe the killer feature of apps like Day One, which make journaling more frictionless, is that it can print to a book. Every January I order a printed book of the prior year’s entries. Because if I die tomorrow, at least some of that will be accessible, because my Day One account is only good for so long as someone pays the bill.
McCullough has often repeated, “If you want to be immortal, keep a diary.” I suspect it’s worth clarifying that he meant “keep a printed diary.” It may sit on a shelf and never be read, but it also might be the only clues someone 200 years from now has about live during COVID-19 not from a printed newspaper.
Paper can, of course, fail amid floods, fires, tornadoes, and other disasters. But even minimally maintained, paper can serve its function for a hundred years or more with no more technology than your eyes. Which is not something we can say about any website, server, physical disk, or other digital media we’ve yet devised.
Ask yourself what you’re really preserving
My grandmother wrote down the weather in a small spiral-bound pocket notebook. It’s not much, but it was evidently useful to her and among the only things I have of hers. Ben Franklin did the same thing, and as I was researching my book on the Tri-State Tornado discovered Franklin’s weather entries are the oldest known weather records in North America. They’ve been archived and made searchable through Purdue University’s cliMATE system. He, like my grandmother, was a one-person weather station. And you know what, a hundred years from now that data might prove useful.
Had she recorded more, she might be like Martha Ballard, one of the earliest known women who recorded a diary in Massachusetts during and after the American Revolution. Technology has made Ballard’s diary more shareable and accessible, but paper made it possible. Even more remarkable that she’s one of the few women to have done so.
Today we post and record immense numbers of items, and much of it can be lost more easily than prints because more people are susceptible to phishing, password leaks, or simply dropping their phone into a lake than they are an earthquake or tornado.