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Chadwick Advises: Don't Throw That Photograph Out

Aug 24, 2016 05:05PM ● By Pamela Johnson
written by Rhonda Chadwick

Purge, Purge, Purge.  Everyone wants to purge these days and throw everything away.  Numerous authors urge people to clear the clutter and get rid of everything except the most basic essentials or the things you truly love.  Different experts recommend different strategies.  Clear one room at a time.  Throw one thing out a week. Maria Kondo, the queen of "tidying" recommends that you only keep what brings you joy.
Thinking that digitizing all your photographs and throwing away the originals is a good idea seems to make great sense in the context of the "more is less" movement. In the movie, "Sisters" with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, a scene demonstrates this growing trend to digitize and purge.  The parents, (James Brolin and Diane Wiest) tell the daughters that a family friend digitized all their pictures.  Wiest hands the two sisters stick drives containing all the memories of their childhood condensed in one easy, tiny, little space.  The girls take the sticks with looks of confusion and disbelief.

In truth, it's pretty awesome that everyone in the family can have a copy of all the family pictures.  The daughters can upload the photographs onto their home computers, or better yet, into the Cloud.  They can look at them any time they want. They can share them with their own children.  They can use them to make memory books, or slideshow videos.  They can print a few favorites out and hang them on the wall.  What can be bad about that?
Diane Wiest goes on to explain to her cranky progeny that, "It feels good to purge."  Poelher asks, "You threw away all our baby pictures?"  Diane reassures her, "No, we sold them to the gay man at the flea market who turns them into funny cards."  Therein lies the problem.  Digitizing your photographs is a great idea.  Getting rid of the originals, not so good.  Why?  In a word – the digital environment is not stable.
Have you ever tried to open a Word document from 1999 and gotten scrambled eggs?  Or opened a document with a status bar at the bottom that indicates that 12,000 characters have been used, but there is nothing on the page?  When faced with these scenarios, I googled what to do.  Many helpful people in digital tech heaven offered much sage advice.  I tried all of it to no avail.  After spending about an hour trying to recapture my old documents, I gave up, thinking I would return to it later when I had more time.  That was three years ago. 
I recently tried to open a photograph, a JPEG, on my computer and got the error message "invalid image."  Yikes!  I happen to have copies of the image in other places.  Whew!  But suppose I didn't? Suppose it was a picture of my great grandfather that I threw away after digitizing.  Then what?  That image would be lost forever.  There is no way to recapture it.
In the archives, we know that everything is not going to be digitized.  There's too much stuff.  What gets digitized are items that have high interest and/or high usage value.  The most important documents get digitized.  But not everything.

In the archives we are now hiring digital archivists – the new kid on the block. These brave souls are figuring out how to take documents that are in older formats, and upgrade them to newer technologies so that they can be opened and used by researchers.  In the archives we regularly get information on 3 ½" floppies.  People whose records we collect drop off their old hard drives and the archivist has to extrapolate the information from it.  Guess what we do?  We print it out, because as of today, paper is still the most stable and long-lasting technology we have.  I know it's not very glamorous. 

Digital archivists are also creating digital archives where items are being put into what is called "cold storage."  When creating digital documents, two copies are made – one is put into cold storage, the other is put on a local server that can be accessed by the public.  The reason we have two copies is because the copy that is accessed all the time is subject to corruption.  Just like a paper copy would deteriorate much more quickly with greater use, digital copies face the same fate.  Every time a digital document is used or saved, a few bits are lost. Over time, the accumulated loss of many little bits results in a corrupt file.  Therefore, a second copy that is kept in cold storage is available to be re-copied for use by the masses, if necessary.

But even the digital copy in cold storage needs periodic maintenance.  Files in cold storage must be regularly migrated in order to be kept "fresh" and accessible.  It's sort of like having to reboot your computer or your phone periodically to keep it running smoothly.  The point being that you can't throw something onto a server somewhere and leave it alone and expect it to be accessible in ten or twenty or a hundred years.  Unless you are prepared to do this kind of maintenance, and are sure someone else will do it after you are not here, you should keep the paper copy of your photographs.
In conclusion – by all means digitize your photographs.  It's a great way to share the information with other family members.  It's great insurance in case a natural disaster visits your front door.  But please keep a copy of the photograph.
For more information on preserving your family documents and memorabilia, see Rhonda Chadwick {
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