Dark ages? Maybe a little gray.

Oh, dear.  Should I really quote the already-widely-quoted Mormon Times article about librarian Curt Witcher’s speech and the coming genealogical Dark Age?

But ignoring it is a little like visiting Chicago on a certain day in 1871 and neglecting to mention they’d had a fire. So many points and posts! Randy Seaver at GeneaMusings did a nice summary, in which James Tanner’s careful reasoning stood out, as usual.

So here’s my only two cents: As a former writer of newspaper articles, I recognize the technique of cherry-picking eye-catching quotes to make a snappy story. Not to say that this reporter turned in a bad story. I’m just saying that we as readers have to be aware when our hot buttons are being pushed, slow down and read carefully.

For instance, there’s the alarming quote: “People are losing interest and focus on keeping the thoughts and the words for future generations.” On second read, this is a bit unclear, and the reporter didn’t expand upon just what Mr. Witcher meant by it. If it means that the rush to digitize may be leaving important records in the dust, well, that’s a definite concern.

But if it means that we as individuals are losing this focus, I think the jury’s out. Certainly the rich profusion of genealogy blogs indicates an interest in sharing our personal thoughts and research. And yet (again): How are we archiving ourselves? Not an idle question … I wrote for an Internet startup in the dark ages of 1998 and can testify to the pain of belatedly realizing that many of my “clips” are no longer clippable!

So although I count myself among the hopeful, I appreciate Mr. Witcher’s remarks (as reported) as a timely wakeup call. We are living in an age of wrenching transitions, and we need to be keeping an eye on the repositories as they negotiate these changes. And on ourselves, too.

A dose of well-placed concern can be a good thing.


3 Comments on “Dark ages? Maybe a little gray.”

  1. Peter Gailey says:

    To whomever posted the above comment,
    Yes, we all should be concerned about preservation of valuable artifacts. It has been stated that 98% of all new data being generated is digital.

    Last week I attended a tour of one of the Regional National Archives facilities. Impressive as it was, it also was enlightening. This particular facility (1 of 15 Regional sites.) had just executed a barcode system. They had moved to a new facility, which necessitated them to handle approximately a million storage boxes. Perfect opportunity to upgrade to Barcode (A 30 year old technology.)

    * Picture a standard sized office paper moving box… White, about 9 X 12 X 18 inches. We have all seen them….
    * Now picture a set of shelves. 14 shelves high. 4 boxes deep to a shelf.
    * An isle of about 2 1/2 feet wide. Enough for a ladder.
    * Picture a row of that configuration about 150 feet long…
    * Picture a set of rows about 100 feet wide.
    That is one vault.
    This facility had 5 vaults. There are 2 other local vaults.
    Total of 7 vaults.

    This facility managed the data for the 100 Federal Agencies associated with four states.

    Now picture 15 such facilities.
    1.5 million sq ft each X 15= 20+Million sq feet of storage space… 14 racks high. ALL PAPER!!!!!

    NOTE: Single copy of paper files….

    This does not count the Federal Archives outside of Washington DC that are massive in comparison.

    All of this data is at risk. Single copy. Single location. Hard copy only.

    My point. This is a minor fraction of the data content that is being storred and generated within the Federal Government. These are cultural documents that need to be preserved. Many into perpetuity.

    There was a worker at a station that was processing birth records by hand. Pull a file. Take a picture of one side of a page,,, Flip the page.. Take another picture… Refile the hard copy. Run the images through an OCR process to digitize and record the data. Very manual process… The good news… Two copies. One original hard copy. The other digital.

    In conclusion, If 98% of all new data is being generated in a digital format, and there are instances and examples of massive data farms (Hard Copy.) as indicated above, we as a culture and society need to be very concerned with data preservation. It is much easier to maintain Hard copy paper artifacts, than it is to maintain digital files for a long period of time.

    The tour was a very enlightening experience. I was very impressed with the National Archives staff. What they have been able to do with very limited resources was and is vey impressive.

    By the way,,, I have been told that the amount of data that is associated with the genealogical research and documentation efforts underway is in the area of many petabytes of data. That is the equivalent of several of the sites described above.


    • Peter, thank you for sharing your NARA tour experience — very illuminating. It seems there are two big issues — the judgment calls made on what get digitized and what doesn’t, (and how/whether the hard-copy only material will be accessible). The second question is the future viability of digital formats themselves. Both issues deserve a lot more attention, IMHO.

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