As genealogists and family historians, we passionately seek to preserve the past. Questions are answered, understanding is gained, and the wisdom and folly of the ages are passed on to the next generation as we publish our research. In order to recapture the past, records and other artifacts are necessary to reconstruct it. Technology has provided incredible opportunities to amass what remains and to record the activities of the present day. There is no question that digital preservation has expedited research and placed records in the hands of the world. No one in the future will have to question what we ate, where we went, or even how we felt day to day as social media documents these experiences. But does the advances of digital preservation negate the necessity of preserving the original form? Can we justify the destruction of an old picture or document?
A printed photograph is preserved on an independent medium. Documents on quality paper have lasted hundreds, even thousands, of years. Nothing else is required to view, enjoy, and recapture the memory. Although we know that conditions have rarely favored the preservation of these items, think about the limitations of the many dependent forms of media. Electricity goes out, batteries die, and networks get disrupted. Can you remember a time when your connection to the Internet was unavailable? Did it come at a critical time? How long did it last? How long could it last?
Although an independent medium has the limitation of number, therefore, found in one location, it is still nice to have a record or artifact in this form. I know of no material that is completely indestructible, but the independent nature of paper, stone, or metal is appealing. This is not to suggest that other ways of preservation should be ignored. It’s just that it seems ironic that if we want to preserve something we would destroy an original.
As we consider preservation, we must remember that provenance is an important principle in the field of genealogy and family history. Provenance is defined as “the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.”1 When we destroy an original we disrupt this path. As we seek a source, we never reach the end of that particular journey even though we are encouraged to trace our sources back to the original. This becomes impossible to do if we are destroying them.
In addition to preservation in an independent medium, using technology and having multiple copies in different formats backed up to your devices and migrating your data as we progress on our technological journey will assure the best chances of survival. Coupled with all of these advancements, preservation in an independent medium has its place among us as the keepers of records. As we find our ancestors, let us consider provenance and the preservation of the records and artifacts they left behind.
1. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), “Provenance,” rev. 6 Mar 2013
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