Will Future Generations Lose Historical Records Of To-Day?

In the late 1990s, I was a photographer for Christie’s auction house. I shot for every department, and even though the historic letters and documents were not a challenge to shoot, they were still among my favorite things to photograph. I felt privileged to handle (carefully) important documents from history, including one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, letters from America’s founding fathers, the diary of a Civil War soldier, etc. Since many of today’s documents exist only digitally, our ancestors won’t have these kinds of physical objects hundreds of years from now. While looking at digital files can give me a similar feeling of connectedness with the past, there’s a feeling I get when I’m holding a piece of paper in my hand that was signed personally by George Washington that I just can’t get from a digital copy of the same document.

Preserving those kinds of historic documents has always been a challenge. This article mainly concerns newspapers and the switch from rag-based to wood-based paper in the late 1800s (wood-based paper being more difficult to preserve). Microfilm was already around in 1910, but the article does not discuss the possibility that newspaper copies could be preserved on film. Microfilm didn’t really become popular until the mid-1920s, and it wasn’t until 1935 that Kodak’s Recordak division began preserving the New York Times in that format.

Incidentally, if you do have a wood pulp newspaper you want to archive, the website historybuff.com has a pretty good overview of how historical newspapers can be preserved.

Note from January 2019:

Today, newspapers are usually created digitally, and so are easy to preserve digitally. But even digital records can become impossible to retrieve as formats become obsolete. And the fluid nature of the internet, where most publishing takes place these days, makes it a difficult medium to preserve. But the non-profit Internet Archive is making a great effort.

I’m glad that people were thinking about preserving their archives 100 years ago. If they weren’t, I’d have a much harder time with this website.

Side note: As a photographer, I think a lot about future-proofing my digital archive. I began shooting digitally in 1997 — at Christie’s, where the studio was on the cutting edge of digital photography — and recently came across some old images in file formats that I couldn’t open. (It took some hunting but I finally found legacy software that allowed me to convert the images to a modern format.) If you save the raw files from your digital camera, chances are good that they are in a proprietary format that may one day be obsolete. Some of the best writing I’ve found about future-proofing your digital photo archives is by Peter Krogh. If these issues concern you, I recommend his book on Digital Asset Management for photographers.

[Side note here added January 2019 by Jesse Rifkin, David Friedman’s successor administrator for SundayMagazine.org. The aforementioned website HistoryBuff.com referenced midway through David’s post no longer exists, which in and of itself attests to David’s statement: “The fluid nature of the internet, where most publishing takes place these days, makes it a difficult medium to preserve. But the non-profit Internet Archive is making a great effort.” I have updated David’s original link about History Buff’s guide to newspaper preservation to the Internet Archive’s cached version of that same link from 2010, back when David originally made this post.]

WILL FUTURE GENERATIONS LOSE HISTORICAL RECORDS OF TO-DAY? Scientists Point Out the Probably Destruction of Newspaper Files in a Few Centuries — The Wood Pulp Problem (PDF)

From July 24, 1910

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