The Fight to Save Our History

The Fight to Save Our History

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” He knew, as we all do, that history is important - but not just the moments that we read about in textbooks or learn about in history class. All the moments that define our lives are important.

The significance of a certain moment often isn’t known until much later. We are great at recognizing which events we will consider important in the future, such as weddings and births, but there are many apparently insignificant moments that turn out to be momentous years later. As Clay Shirky, media scholar and author, says, “People are good at guessing what will be important in the future, but we are terrible at guessing what won’t be.”

For example, who could have predicted the significance of a “Health Bureau Statistics” column in a now non-existent newspaper? There, on page B-6 of the August 13, 1961 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser are two lines announcing the birth of a boy to Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama. No one could have predicted back then that this was the origin of our 44th president, but luckily neither the Hawaii Health Department nor the now closed newspaper destroyed their records.

Of course, there is a risk of losing this information that is kept in folders, enveloped in an organization system that has ballooned over the years. This is true of all printed materials, many of which are so fragile that they can’t be scanned on flatbed scanner. As difficult as it is, we must preserve them.  Who knows what future mysteries they could solve or what stories they may tell?

Jeff Roth has dedicated his career to the preservation of physical documents. Jeff is the caretaker and last employee at the New York Times’s affectionately named archive, “The Morgue.” Down in this archive of steel filing cabinets and storage boxes is a ton of history. Jeff says, “You’re always learning something down here, sometimes just by osmosis.”

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But it’s not just physical memories that are at risk of being lost. Digital records and family and personal history are also in jeopardy. As Jeff Rothenberg, author at Scientific American, noted, “Digital data lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first. Our digital documents are far more fragile than paper. In fact, the record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy.”

While many may work to salvage the documents of a well-known newspaper or small business, what will happen to the memories of your family? To the blog posts, moments shared on Facebook, and so much more?

As websites and blogs shut down, we are at risk of losing the important history they contain. We are at the mercy of the companies that control the digital platforms on which they live. At any moment, these companies can pull the rug out and wipe away your digital footprint.

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That is why Brewster Kahle, computer scientist and internet archivist, founded the Wayback Machine to help preserve the access to free information.  This incredible site attempts to archive the modern records we keep on the internet. The work of the Wayback Machine has helped to save and archive the internet with over 310 billion webpages saved over time.

The work of archivists and memory-keepers is essential. As generations pass, technology grows, and records fade or are lost, humanity can lose important information. As Maria Bustillos writes, “History is a fight we’re having every day. We’re battling to make the truth first by living it, and then by recording and sharing it, and finally, crucially, by preserving it. Without an archive, there is no history.”

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