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.


One thought on “Digitally Preserving Family History

  1. I think we all have examples of our family throwing out old things. In my case, I happened to find a book of gas ration tickets from World War 2 in a drawer at my grandmother’s house. She was cleaning it out and I just happened to see them. I can’t imagine what she actually tossed. Well done post. Thank you.

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