If this is your first time visiting this blog, please go to this page to read what this is all about.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with digitizing visual material from an orphaned family archive. While many of the photo’s don’t tell a compelling story on their own, combined they form a tiny window on the past. It was my goal to find a suitable home for all these documents, preferably an archive where they could be used for historical research.
But something in me couldn’t quite let go of them. Especially the photo albums: I spent whole afternoons just browsing through them. There are a couple dozen of them, spanning from the early twentieth century until the late seventies. Most of them are from the 1920’s and 1930’s. I decided to digitize the albums. That way I could keep them, in a sense, after I had given them away. It would also be a bit of practice in how to digitize this kind of source.
During the class that I wrote this blog for, last year, there was a guest lecture by several design students from the Technical University in Eindhoven. They were members of the Materializing Memories project, that takes an industrial design approach to personal memories. They showed us a (for us) new way of looking at memory studies: instead of discovering through research, they argued that you could also discover through design. This idea stuck with me. I’ve since tried to think of ways to “do things” with my research subjects, instead of “just thinking about them”. This project of digitizing these photo albums is part of that.
I’ve discovered several things. Some of them very practical: first off, I should iron my backdrop before I use it. And I should get a lens that is sharper in the corners. I’ve also learned how to make a multi-page .pdf file, and how to embed it in WordPress. All very useful, but more importantly it made me think of what it is about these albums that I am digitizing. As I stated above, the pictures individually often have little meaning. It is the corpus they come in (the album), and its materiality, that gives it meaning. The album itself contains a lot of metadata on the pictures. I’ve discussed this broader understanding of metadata in many previous posts. In this case, the writing next to many pictures and on the cover of the album, as well as the ordering of the pictures, are clear-cut examples of descriptive metadata. The materiality also contains data: the glue on some pages reveals that there are pictures missing; the type of album could tell something about its use or origin to someone who knows more about that kind of thing than I do. In short, it is important to keep as much as possible of the context of the pictures intact when digitizing these albums. I think I’ve come pretty close.
The album below is now at the VU in Amsterdam, by the way. The cover says “kamp kieken”, or “camp pictures”. The abbreviation “PiCo” appears several times throughout the album. This probably refers to “Pinkster Compagnie”, which was probably a Christian youth camp.
As you may have read in the About This Blog section, I started writing this blog for a course in my MA programme. I’ve since finished that course, but I’ve decided to keep blogging. Through the research I did for the course I realised that there are a lot of interesting things left to write about concerning the storage of personal data, and the transition of analog to digital. I will take this blog in a bit of a different direction, though.
Since February I’ve been involved in writing a “best practice guide” of sorts that advises people on how to store their home videos, and why. This guide goes beyond the technical guides, that tell you how your stored videos and film will last longest of which there are quite a few already, and also pays attention to the context of the material. It’s important to store and preserve certain metadata with it to be really useful to other people and later generations. For example: a video of a meaningful event, such as someones first drive after getting their license, may seem like just some random person driving a car without the backstory. To make matters worse, imagine that the video was recorded on Betamax tape. That would tell you something about when it was recorded, how and by what kind of person. But if that video was subsequently digitised without noting the material properties of the original carrier, a lot of data would be lost. These are just a few of the many problems we deal with in the guide. Many of these problems aren’t straightforward. I’ll post some my thoughts on and struggles with the subject on here too. I’ll start with a post on the difference between storage/back up/archives when talking about personal digital archives, and a post about (dealing with) metadata of analog born media, which I’ll both post on here soon.
Another project I’m working on is a large orphaned personal archive in possession of my mother-in-law. She was friends with the last members of a family with no further heirs. When the last member of that family died a few years back, she left their personal archives to my mother-in-law. It includes many photo albums, dating back to the early twentieth century, letters, diaries, and many many more personal items. I got really excited by the possibilities all these sources could offer to historians, but I also noticed that most people, including my mother-in-law, tend not to think of that at first. Usually their first instinct is to throw a lot of stuff out. I’m now working with my mother-in-law on finding a good destination for these documents. I’ll also blog about this from time to time.
In short, you can expect posts about: the transition of personal data from analog to digital; keeping personal digital data safe (especially in terms of preservation, rather than privacy); the concept of metadata, especially for analog born, digitised media; the value of personal data for historical research in general, and how and why it should be archived/stored/backed up.
Toward the end of the interview, my father mentioned that he sometimes fears that we may be setting ourselves up for another Dark Age. He noted that digital correspondence has less permanence than its analog predecessor seemed to have. While some had the habit of saving hand written letters and postcards, hardly anyone seems to take the effort to preserve emails, let alone messages sent through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Google Hangouts. My mother also mentioned that she’s concerned about obsolescence and the possibility that it could cause the loss of personal digital memory cues. The devices and digital filetypes we use today may not be easily accessible if at all in the future.
The idea of a digital Dark Age has been around for a while, probably sparked by the Y2k scare. The 2004 German documentary The Digital Dark Age described the risks associated with technological obsolescence, and the efforts combating them. Organisations like The Long Now and The Internet Archive are putting the risk of a digital Dark Age associated short term thinking on the agenda.
One striking example of the threat of the digital Dark Age through obsolescence is actually provided by a project related to its more well known namesake. In 1986, the BBC decided to harness the power of modern computing to make a modern version of the Domesday Book, a famous book containing all owners and their possessions in England in 1066. The book was made by order of William the Conquerer, who had just conquered England, to help him to levy taxes. The making of this book was an undertaking of epic proportions, of course. It was finally finished in 1986. For the 900 year anniversary of the completion of the book, the BBC asked Britons to write down what they thought would be of interest to people a thousand years from today. This resulted in 147,819 pages of text articles and 23,225 amateur photos, that were stored on the newest high-tech digital storage medium: a LaserDisc, approximately the size of a vinyl record. While this medium was thought, at least by those managing the project at the BBC, to be the future, it didn’t catch on. As time went on, drives that could read the discs, and computers that could handle the software stored thereon became more and more rare. If no one had intervened, there was a real possibility that all collected data would have been lost forever. Luckily, someone did intervene: from 1999 onward several parties worked on emulating the software needed to read the data on the discs, and making durable copies of the original discs. The contents have also been put on the internet, for everyone to use. This story illustrates that digital media are prone to obsolescence, and require frequent maintenance and updates. All the while, the original 1086 Domesday Book remains uncorrupted and legible. It only needs to be kept safe from moisture, bugs, fire and excessive light.
Usually only thought of in terms of obsolesence and continuity, or of the perishability or corruptability of media. Implies that the technology itself is where most danger lies. Rarely spoken about the danger of transition, which stems from the user rather than the medium. This is the danger that my father referred to, and that I have observed myself in the situation of my parents. In many cases the analog tradition of preserving memory cues is replaced by a digital tradition. These may not completely overlap, though. In the case of my parents, my mother had completely abandoned documenting special occasions in the analog tradition. For a while, she still took the responsibility of taking pictures with a digital camera, but this became more and more infrequent. Furthermore, all pictures were still managed and preserved by my father, who therefore had a strong influence on what was kept and how it was displayed. After my mother got a smartphone, she stopped using the camera all together. A new tradition to use the smartphone to document occasions had not yet formed, however. In practice, over the years my father had more and more become the primary producer, selector and custodian of our family’s memory cues. His way of doing these things was very different from my mother’s, as I write in this post. The switch in traditions, and the switch in roles, have made gap in our family’s memory cues.
But so what if we lose a bit of data? A few email, a website here and there, big deal. We pump out these things by the billions every day, so we can afford to lose a few, right? There will be plenty of sources left for future historians to work with. We live in what media theorist Andrew Hoskins calls a post-scarcity culture. Hoskins argues that “[t]here is a new contagion of the past driven by a memorial culture unstoppably equipped with the availability, portability and pervasiveness of digital devices, enabling the instant aggregation and archiving of everything”. In other words: modern technology practically erases the limits of what we can save. We can capture every moment, save every memory cue. But if you can save everything, how do you choose what to actually save? With the limits of the analog tradition, its guidance has also disappeared. The easier messages are to send, the more ubiquitous and abundant they become, and the less likely you are to put any effort into composing, let alone preserving them. The same goes for photographs, videos, and so on.
It might well be that in a few centuries we will find that there are far fewer sources left for historians to study than you’d expect based on the vast numbers we produce everyday. It’s a real possibility that most of our emails, instagrams, tweets and blogposts are not durable at all. Many have noted the dangers that digital data faces, but most have pointed towards more technical reasons. Besides the dangers of losing data due to decay, obsolescence or some apocalyptic event (like a worldwide electromagnetic storm knocking out all electronics, or like Facebook going bankrupt), there is also a rising danger of memory cues no longer being produced. The new digital traditions, often part of post-scarcity culture, don’t produce the same memory cues that the analog tradition did. I believe that the dangers inherent in transition combined with carelessness about media caused by living in a post-scarcity era are just as real, and probably more fundamental. Even if we manage to preserve everything we produce, what is the use if all we’ve got are instagrams of our lunch and selfies?
 Andrew Hoskins, “7/7 and Connective Memory: Interactional Trajectories of Remembering in Post-Scarcity Culture.” Memory Studies 4, no. 3 (July 1, 2011): 269–80
Cover image: “Obsolete Screens” by Ben Raynal, 2011. Via Flickr.com (creative commons licence)
To start this post I should make clear that I do not believe that we should (or can) replace all analog ways of storing our memory cues with digital ones. Some things can’t be digitised, like the joy of receiving a hand written letter, the beauty of a really photograph or the charm of a tin of film. Call me a romantic, but there’s history in the materiality of these things, and that’s something that should not be neglected.
I do believe that digital offers amazing ways to back up, organise, publish and display things that compliment what you can do with analog. As I’ve stated in a recent post, both analog and digital carry with them certain risks. Many of these are negated by using both. It does require a bit of work, though. And that is often problematic, as people don’t like a bit of work.
Digital is easy. I shot over 300 photos with my new camera just last week, without even thinking about it. If I were shooting analog, that wouldn’t have happened. Every day when I got home I put the photos in Adobe Lightroom, to review, edit and develop. Lightroom offers tagging, but I rarely use it. After I export photos from Lightroom, they go in Picasa and Google Photos. Both offer tagging, but I don’t use them. I rely on the automatic, built in geo-tagging and other metadata collected by the camera. This results in a sort of semi-archive, where I can find photos if I can remember where or when I took them, but not if I only know what the subject was. This has resulted in various occasions on which I couldn’t find that one photo I was looking for. I really should start tagging…
What I have you could call an anarchive. This term, taken from an essay by Wolfgang Ernst, refers to storage without organisation, in short. In the digital world, lacking organisation is poses a greater risk than it does in the analog world. As a computer can not interpret images, videos or music (as well as a human being can, yet), it relies on metadata and other organising structures to make sense of files. The less a computer knows about a file, the slimmer the chance it will be able to find it for you, simply because it has nothing to hold on to. If a photograph, for example, has no name or metadata, what could you ctrl+f ?
At the same time, advances in computing negate these risks to a great extent. Rising levels of sophistication in web crawlers, image recognition and search engines automate organisation to a great extent. These new tools enable the outsourcing of the most tedious and repetitive tasks, such as sorting pictures by date or place (if the pictures are geo-tagged). But they are also capable of performing increasingly complex tasks. Google image search can identify images that are similar to others; Picasa sorts images by the people who are in them with the help of face recognition technology; Google Photos, Google+ and Facebook automatically generate “photo albums” at the end of the year or after a weekend trip, identifying high points using complex algorithms. No actual people are involved with these tasks anymore, and I must say I think these programs often do a pretty good job.
American inventor Vannevar Bush wrote his seminal essay “as we may think” seventy years ago this year. In this essay he envisions a machine, the “memex”, that would make traditional hierarchical organisation obsolete. It would allow for associative browsing through collective knowledge, freely jumping from subject to subject. With the current state of Internet, we have made this machine, but its not everything that Bush expected it to be. The vast amounts of information have become unimaginable, and certainly unmanageable for most. As information scientists Bill Johnston and Sheila Webber have argued, the abundance of freely accessible information causes information overload. The Googles, Facebooks and Microsofts of today realise that. That is why more and more content is custom tailored to the user. The same process is taking place with user data storage: as the amounts of digital files we keep becomes overwhelming, these large companies are eager to take them off our hands and help us to sort them out. As these services are usually “free”, I sometimes wonder what I will end up paying…
For now, our most important role in archiving, as human beings, is to interpret things that a computer can not. While a computer might be able to identify a “spectacular sunset” based on color and composition of a photo, geo-location and the time it was taken, it is not yet able to interpret the personal value or a more subtle meaning attached to it. This particular sunset could well be a snapshot taken on a romantic evening, or there could be a sinking ship in the background. Simple tagging of photos and videos could help computers distinguish between the two. Of course, these kinds of artefacts are quite complex. A video of a baby’s first steps could well be of interest to future historians because of things in the background. Just like present day archivists can only do so much, these limitations should not discourage us from striving to organise our personal memory cues as well – and as easily, otherwise we just won’t do it – as possible.
Information scientist and archivist Richard Cox argues that citizens should be offered education to become better keepers of their digital personal and family archives. He also comments on the rise of these large tech companies offering online storage. He argues that these companies, too, need to be educated on archival practice, for it is here that many future archives could reside. Historian Peter Webster, who has a special interest in digital scholarship, argues in this blog post that historians should care more about digital archives. He closes with the following statement, with which I couldn’t agree more: “So: we need a new model of archival curation, based on a partnership between archivists, scholars and the public. The technical means are there; it simply needs a new form of engagement, and we historians can help make it happen.”
 Wolfgang Ernst, “Cultural archive versus technomathematical storage,” in Archive in motion: new conceptions of the archive in contemporary thought and new media practices (Oslo: Novus Press,2010) 53-77.
 Bill Johnston and Sheila Webber, “As we may think: Information literacy as a discipline for the information age”. Research Strategies (2006) ,20, 108-121
 Richard J. Cox, “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist.” Digital Curation: Practice, Promises & Prospects (2009) 102–9.
This research is quite different from the things I normally do. As a historian, I per definition do not get to influence my subject. This time, influence is almost inevitable. As my mother said at the end of her interview: when you start asking questions, people start to think about things. My parents weren’t really concerned with the way they stored their memory cues before this research began. But since the interviews, especially my father has changed the way he stores his memory cues. He has been looking for a solution for the backup issue we discussed: most data was stored, both digitally and analog, in my parent’s house. If it were to burn to the ground or something similar, everything would be lost. He is currently working on a system that includes a second server at my house. The two servers would continuously synchronise, resulting in redundant digital storage. This is similar to cloud storage, but without depending on services of companies that may not be reliable. Until this server is set up, my father has given me access to some parts of the server so that I can simply download things to my computer. The first thing I took is the complete digitised collection of home videos my mother’s father made in the 1950’s through 1970’s. I’ll write a blog post about these, and more of my grandparent’s memory cues, soon.
This project has also influenced other people around me to whom I talked about it. My girlfriend and her parents suddenly realised that most of their home videos are still on old digital8 tapes, or even VHS (which is notorious for its short shelf life). They’re currently working on digitising all those old tapes.
I must say that this project has had a similar affect on the way I produce, store and curate my own memory cues. Like my father, I take quite a lot of photos. I relied on memory and the automatic organisation of Google Photos to navigate through them, but I realised that this is risky for many reasons discussed in earlier posts. I started tagging all my pictures or “stacks” of pictures (sets of pictures taken within a certain amount of time. Usually I make stacks of pitures with less than ten minutes between them). I also opened a Flickr account. Flickr offers a terabyte of free cloud storage. You can set the visibility of uploaded pictures to public, password protected or just you. Flickr also offers various levels of copyright permissions: from “all rights reserved” to Creative Commons and everything in between. The reliability and long-term sustainability of Flickr, like that of all cloud storage services, is still uncertain. I see it as just another place to store my photos, providing redundancy.
Another thing I started doing is making regular backups of my video and photo library to my external hard drive. This ensures that I still have all my data even if the internet goes down due to some Y2K-esque event. The only scenario in which I would lose everything is a near-apocalypse in which all access to electricity would be lost. If that happens, so be it. I’d have bigger things to worry about then.
Cloud storage and backup hard drives may be a solution for redundant storage of photos and other such smaller files, but they are too expensive for larger ones. I’ve also recorded a lot of audio and video in the past. This usually results in much larger files or (in the case of audio, where a project often consists of many smaller files) folders. I’m still looking for a convenient and affordable way to keep those safe.
 I’m, of course, referring to traditional historical research, not things like memory studies that have more recently become part of the historian’s realm. In those cases you can influence your subject in similar ways as I did with this research.
In this post I’d like to share some general observations from the research so far. I’ve put them in three groups: risks, roles and memory holes. I picked these groups, not just because I think they make a nice title, but also because it also sums up the observations that I seem to keep ending up with.
It is clear that both analog and digital media bring with them their own set of risks. Here are two lists summing them up:
Women generally take on the role of primary producer and curator of family memory cues. That is what Carman Neustaedter en Elena Fedorovskaya concluded from their research on “digital photo ecosystems”. While that used to be the case in my family, the roles have switched since the dawning of the digital era.
In both producing and preserving memory cues my parents take on different roles. While my mother was in charge of, what Risto Sarvas and David M. Frohlich call the “kodak path”, my father took care of what they call the “digital path”. I believe the digital path fits perfectly with my father’s love for tinkering, which led to him taking charge of curating the family memory cues archive. My mother does feel there are some shortcomings in the way my father does this: in production (she thinks he takes too few photos of people, and that they are at times too impersonal), in preservation (she sometimes worries about the risks of digital storage) and in publication (she thinks digital photos are less accessible than analog ones). But in the end she’s happy that he is willing to do the job, as she feels overwhelmed by the task at hand. In the last ten years digital media have taken dominance over analog ones in our house, and my mother has almost completely abandoned producing and curating photos.
Both of my parents expressed what could be called a fear of digital amnesia. This was not a fear they had for themselves, but rather for society as a whole. My father talked about that we don’t keep letters anymore, and how this could lead to a Dark Ages-like situation for future historians. My mother talked about that she read in articles that today’s digital storage media might become obsolete and unaccessible in the future. Both are examples of digital amnesia.
In my post about my father’s interview I stated that Rushkoff’s concept of present shock is perhaps more difficult to apply to individuals than it is to collectives and institutions. That does seem to be so with the cases I have discussed: individually, my parents don’t show a clear bias towards the present. But many of the “practices of memory cue production” that the family had have disappeared in part due to the rise of digital media. This was especially clear from my mother’s interview. She states that over the last years, she has stopped saving letters (but doesn’t save e-mails either); she has stopped taking photos (but my father doesn’t take the same kind of personal pictures); she has stopped making photo albums; she even forgot to take pictures of Christmas last time.
The gradual disappearance of social institutions of commemoration within the family, together with possible technological obsolescence, could lead to a sort of “memory hole”: a period of transition when old institutions ceased to function before new ones were fully functional. Perhaps this will be, in certain ways, like the Dark Ages to future historians.
 Carman Neustaedter and Elena Fedorovskaya, ‘Understanding and Improving Flow in Digital Photo Ecosystems’, in Graphics Interface Conference. Kelowna, 2009.
 Risto Sarvas and David Frohlich, “the Digital Path (1990-)”, in From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography. London: Springer, 2011. 83-101
When I edited the interview with my mother, I focussed on a couple of things: we spoke about three main types of memory cues that she has in both digital en analog forms. We discussed how she stores these, what she keeps and what she throws away, and why. We spoke about her role within our family when it comes to producing and storing these memory cues. And finally we discussed the influence of digital media on all of this.
As the switch from analog to digital, and the contrast between the two are a theme throughout the interview, the dichotomy becomes less helpful as a sensitising concept. A code is of no use if everything can be coded to it. I will discuss analog and digital media throughout the other parts of this analysis.
Site of storage
For a long time my mother kept a lot of (personal and family) photo albums, but in the last ten years she has stopped doing that. This happened when my father took over taking photos, which he took digitally and displayed on the family website. This became the new photo album for our family. The flow of taking analog photos, having them developed, picking up envelopes of photos, sorting them out and putting them in albums stopped. Now she stores all pictures taken with her digital camera locally on the computer in the living room. Since she got her smartphone she has started using cloud storage that is installed an set up by default for the photos she takes with the phone.
At first glance, the dichotomy of digital versus analog is evenly divided between my parents: my father takes care of the digital while my mother looks after the analog. But upon further inspection it’s not that simple. As I’ve described above the roles within our family concerning the production, preservation and organisation of photos more or less switched when we switched from analog to digital. At around 1:14 my mother even explicitly refers to my father being in charge of “new photos”. My father already was in charge of the home videos, perhaps because that was also a more technical thing that required a bit of tinkering. There is a correlation between the switch from analog to digital and the switch from my mother as primary producer and curator to my father, but there may be another factor that caused the second switch: at that same moment my father lost his job as an IT-professional around 2003. He suddenly got a lot more time on his hands to tinker. My mother started working more hours as she became the primary breadwinner.
My mother used to be (and technically still is) in charge of the analog photo albums. She organises the photos by year, special event or person – though this last category is a bit problematic: this includes the albums she had intended to make for me and my brother but eventually gave up on because they were too much work. In the albums, she also adds some metadata to the photos: a brief description, a data, some names. An older photo album revealed that a lot of the organisation can deteriorate over time: a meticulously curated series of passport photos came loose from the page, causing the order to go lost and the written comments to become nearly useless (for the photo see this post).
Many memory cues are only stored. They have little to no organisation. Some examples: a shoe box filled with envelopes with pictures; drawers full of letters; a stack of postcards in a cabinet. These unorganised sets of memory cues bring to mind a dilemma: many of these things only reveal their value over time, but it’s also more difficult to retrieve their metadata over time. A letter could be very special, or utterly meaningless after a couple of decades. But which of the two it is also depends on its original context, which is often forgotten after such a period of time. That shows one of the advantages of digital media: they have more embedded metadata.
Losing digital memory cues would not be that big a deal if we still produced the same analog ones as we used to. My mother’s interview clearly tells us that, in her case, digital has totally replaced analog. There are no printed photos or paper letter to fall back on. But the loss of digital media isn’t the only cause of this amnesia. Practices of creating digital memory cues don’t fully reflect the practices we had with analog media. Some analog traditions disappeared, and weren’t replaced by digital ones. Take, for example, the tradition of taking photos of special occasions. My mother explained how, now she just got a new smartphone, she forgot to take pictures of Christmas of the first time this year. Old traditions disappear before new ones are fully established.