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Where’s the shoebox for digital photos?

September 17, 2012

Back in the day, people often stored old photos and letters in shoeboxes. They were sturdy and just about the right size. Some folks still print photos and paste them into decorative scrap books. I don’t know of anyone, though, who prints out important emails and saves paper copies.

How will we pass on our digital memories to coming generations? Some of us back up digital photos to CDs or DVDs, but what happens when players become obsolete and are hard to come by – like slide projectors today? Do we convert our files over to each successive new medium? We now store many of our media files in the cloud, so the issues of media compatibility and player availability are a little less worrisome. But what if our digital files were lost?

How about text documents — do you back up personal emails for posterity? I’m good about backing up my computer, but I don’t have a separate place for those special email messages from my kids. Wouldn’t you like to be able to look back twenty years from now and see what your FaceBook wall looked like the day after a special event?

The situation is pretty similar for my work-related material. I have never printed off the contents of this blog, and a few years ago I all but stopped using a file cabinet to store paper copies of project documents, meeting minutes, and so forth. The important files are on my hard drive…

Archivists around the world have been grappling with these and many related issues for years. The Library of Congress sponsors an organization called the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, which recently produced a toolkit called Digital Preservation in a Box. DPB provides resources for introducing the basic concepts and issues of digital preservation and stewardship. It should be an excellent source for faculty who’d like to try tackling these issues with a class — or maybe you’re simply curious.

[Public domain shoe box image from]

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