Digitally Preserving Family History

When she was growing up, my mother saved almost everything—her drawings, her journals, her 9th grade English essays.  After she left for college, however, her mother threw out all of it.  To this day, she continues to lament the loss of these valuable items.  Perhaps, had she only been able to digitize them, might she still have these documents today?

The answer is far from black and white: while many people of digital files as virtually indestructible, they aren’t. Many digital files created only thirty years ago, such as early compact discs, are already unreadable, because they are so susceptible to even small environmental changes factors.  As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig write in their online textbook, ( Digital History, “with some exceptions, digital formats tend to require an exceedingly high degree of integrity in order to function properly.” They go on to say that, “in an odd way, their perfection is also their imperfection: they are encoded in a precise fashion that allows for unlimited perfect copies (unlike, say, photocopied paper documents), but any loss of their perfection can mean disaster.”

That being said, paper records are also liable to be destroyed, under the right (or wrong) circumstances—that is, a large flood, an earthquake—even a war, as was the case last year in Mali, when thousands of ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu were rescued from destruction at the last minute.

Because simply storing historical records on a disk or in a filing cabinet does not seem to be an adequate long-term plan, the best way to go about storing my family history seems to be digitizing it—that is, scanning all the documents and storing them in the cloud.  For instance, I could scan my old photo albums—or I could even (if I’m pressed for time) use a smartphone to snap pictures of them photo albums, the upload them to the cloud.  Needless to say, both these methods could prove to be extremely time-consuming, but they seem to be the most failsafe. In any case, whatever digital media I ultimately choose to store the documents on, I will have to scan the documents at some point, and storing these files online seems to the safest way to go.

Even storing items online, though—where they seem virtually indistructable—can have its pitfall.  Websites can close, as happened in 2002 with My History Is America’s History.  The victim of changing political winds and the dot-com bust, many of the documents stored on its servers disappeared forever.  Additionally, there is a limited amount of space available, even in the cloud, and photographs and videos take up quite a bit of space.

Therefore, in addition to preserving documents integral to my family’s history online— photographs, social security cards, birth certificates, old papers I or my sister wrote in the third grade, drawings, etc—I would attempt to create store them on some sort of digital media, perhaps an external hard drive, or even DVDs.  

According to Library of Congress’s Personal Archiving page (, there are three main factors to consider when using digital media to store documents: 1. media durability; 2. media usage, storage and handling; and 3. media obsolescence.   The external hard drive seems to meet all three requirements, so I most likely go with this option.


Copyright violation or Fair Use?

Do websites have the right to share and/or sell previously published material?  The answer is not an ambiguous yes or no.  Under the Fair Use law, copyrighted material may be used only if it is “(a) not used for commercial gain and used exclusively for educational purposes; and (b) used in limited amounts in comparison to the published source.” (  Therefore, under to the law, it is perfectly legal to share previously published or otherwise copyright-protected material, as long as the distribution is limited, it is used to educational purposes—and, it is not used for commercial gain. 

However, if the material is used for commercial gain, then this clearly infringes on the both the law, and, in my opinion, the spirit of the law as well.  Simply copying someone’s work, then selling it for commercial gain (whether or not you give them credit), then is illegal.  However, if the material has been completely repackaged—so that the original product is almost unrecognizable—then, it seems that the material might be fair game to be sold for commercial use.

The website I examined today, the Internet History Sourcebooks Project (, provides a wealth of resources for history teachers and students in high school and college.  According to the introduction page, their goal is “to present a diversity of source material in modern European, American, and Latin American history, as well as a significant amount of material pertinent to world cultures and global studies.” (Internet History Sourcebook Project)  The website culls information from various documents available from around the web, including “contemporary narrative accounts, personal memoirs, songs, newspaper reports, as well as cultural, philosophical, religious and scientific documents” (ibid).

The first question, then, is, does this site infringe on copyright law?  After all, it provides scanned books (or portions thereof), video clips, etc.  The answer is, according to the Fair Use act, it does not. It clearly is distributing the material for educational purposes, and the site doesn’t charge for its use.  This does not meant that there have been categorically zero copyright infringements—as the site states, they have made a “good faith effort” to adhere to the law (ibid).  It also includes instructions on what to do if someone feels that copyright has been infringed.  As to whether or not the site could charge for their material, it seems that the answer is clearly no, since it has not repackaged it any way.


On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon, surrounded by hundreds of Israeli riot police, visited the Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa Mosque is located.  The mosque is part of the compound, and is widely considered the third holiest site in Islam.  Very soon after, Palestinian demonstrations quickly outside erupted into rioting, which soon turned very violent: the Third Intifada was born.

My question is, “What motivated Ariel Sharon to climb atop the Temple Mount in the first place?

I want to understand why the prime minister chose to visit the Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam (and de facto under Israeli military occupation), when surely he knew this would inflame Palestinian anger, and quite possibly lead to another Intifada (as it did).

There are numerous digital sources available, especially in the Library of Congress database.

For instance:

Sources: David A. Jaeger, et al. The struggle for Palestinian hearts and minds: violence and public opinion in the Second Intifada. National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, 2008). [electronic resource]

Jaeger, David A, and Paserman, Daniele.  The cycle of violence?: An empirical analysis of fatalities in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (Bonn, 2005). [electronic resource]

Lawrence and Aaronsohn: T.E. Lawrence, Aaronsohn and the Seeds of the Arab-Israel Conflict Webcast (Library of Congress) – a video of Ronald Florence, speaking for 40 minutes, at the Library of Congress on 12/03/2007.

Possible History 390 Topics

Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.

Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

In the classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, a little boy is given a stuffed rabbit for Christmas.  For many months, he neglects the toy, preferring to play with his other, fancier toys, like his wooden train set.  One day, however, after the boy loses his cherished china dog, his aunt absentmindedly throws the rabbit into the boy’s room; from then on, the boy and his rabbit are inseparable.  In the end, through the strength of the boy’s love, the rabbit becomes real.  The book, written almost a century ago, was my favorite story when I was younger: it is a testament to the power of a child’s imagination.  Toys and children have not always occupied the exalted status they enjoy today; a toy’s role in society has evolved alongside our notion of childhood.  One topic I might explore, then, is: how has our view of childhood evolved over the years, and how do the different toys we play with reflect these changes?

Another topic that I might explore is the series of events that happened in the days leading up to the Iranian revolution.  As a Global Affairs major, I am particularly interested in recent historical events in the Middle East as they pertain to the current situation there.  World History Sources has a link to the Iranian Oral History Project (, which features a collection of testimonials dating from 1929 to 1979, the year of the revolution.   The testimonials are in audio and written format (while the majority of them are in Persian, Google Translate provides for an adequate translation).

I am also interested in the Arab-Israeli predicament, especially since I lived in Israel for a time. I might investigate something related to genesis of the crisis (the forced expulsion of Paletinians in 1948 from Palestine, or the Intifada), or perhaps a major turning point, such as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.