Friday, February 20, 2015

"Like snow upon the desert's dusty face..."

Tis the season of frogs and mockingbirds – we have music by day and music by night! To get the full effect, imagine adding in a chorus  of finches, jays, crows, mourning doves,  and humming birds.  On a sunny morning they are awesome!

Fukien Province,  China
As a child in Kansas, on gray snowy days, when it was too cold to go out and play, I would at times pull out the box of family photos.  This is where I learned the near and distant history of my family.  My long ago distant relatives when they still  lived in Bohemia, the youth of my parents, my Mothers years living in China, the people of the Delia Kansas community – extended family and friends – near and far - they were all here.  

Crew out picking corn
As we lived our lives, additional photos were added to remind me of major events in our lives .  There were also old post cards and letters, some written in Czech in a fine careful style, others written in the rough hand of my uncles when they were away working, also letters from distant relatives who wrote only at Christmas time…… they were all saved in bundles with ribbons around each  stack.  Here I learned about who I was and where my ancestry came from.

My mothers photo from Fukien province China
My concern is that today I take good digital photos stored in my computer – I have an extensive communication with family and friends around the world – also stored as ephemeral records “out in the cloud” or in my computer.  Of course I have my computer backed up – but it all is stored only as electronic ‘images’.  And it's not just me – the records of our entire historical era are recorded in a similar manner.  Will this all still be there for  future historians? Both for historians and for for later generations in our families to go back and connect with us through our records…?   We could well lose a lot of our history.  How many of you have had a computer crash?  Even with back up it’s hard to restore everything.

Great grandparents
Part of the problem is changing technology – not long ago we stored information on ‘floppy discs’.  Who still  has a computer that reads floppy discs? Ever the 4” x 4” discs have largely disappeared.  Now wee use CD discs or thumb drives… but for how long… I store many things in the mysterious “cloud” – whatever that is – and who knows what its life span will be.  Companies close up every day – “whoops there goes that cloud!!!”  These very words you are reading here come to you electronically and are so very temporary.

First family house after emigrating to America
Letter writing is a lost art – It has been months or years since I last wrote a pen-on-paper letter that I sealed in an envelope and sent with a stamp – (which we scurrilously call “snail mail”.)   I write and receive wonderful meaningful messages and ideas in emails, Facebook messages, even twitter… but it all reminds me of the line in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face, Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.”
Sometimes I have trouble finding a message that was written even last month.

Czech family children
Most parents want to keep a careful record of the development of their family. Photos of the major events in the lives of the kids  are precious….but in most families these too are stored digitally.  Fragile as snowflakes!

So what are our options –?

Be warned:  Even under ideal circumstances (e.g., away from extreme heat, cold, or moisture), CDs are only reliable for about 5 years or so.  Not recommended!

This is the best advice I can find for right now... 

1.  Keep photos and files on your hard drive and back them up. Hard drives have their flaws but they are more durable than CDs.   Sites like will back up your hard drive files into their cloud.

2.  Buy an external hard drive is a device onto which you can store a large quantity of files. It also is way more dependable than CD storage.  Just look on line or go to your neighborhood “Fry’s”

3.  Sites like FLICKR, SHUTTERFLY, or IPHOTO let you upload your pictures to a secure server… you can access them from any computer in the world with good Internet connection. You can control who can view your files, or you can make them totally private.  As long as the company is there you are probabily secure.
Early car in Delia
4.  Of course you can make hard copies of your most precious papers and photos - but even modern color prints are not as durable as only Silver Nitrate black and white photos... 

All of these have some uncertainty – will they be there in 20 years? 100 years?  Who knows?

In the words of the great Tony Soprano, "What ya goin to do?"   Good luck!

Advice from the Library of Congress