Avoid the Digital Dark Ages

By Roger (13 April 2015)

Do you scan old photographs so you can share the files with all your family members? Once you have them scanned, you, naturally, have to restore them to repair scratches, tears, and fading, right? I do, too. I enjoy doing that kind of work and have done some for other folks. It's a good thing to do to help preserve old memories. It can, also, help you learn some valuable techniques in Photoshop.

Easy restoration of an old photo.

Easy restoration of an old photo.

Now, I have all the files backed up several times, and I have a complete set of those backups in another state entirely. We've saved lots of space in the house that was filled with boxes of slides, negatives, and prints. Everything is organized and keyworded in Lightroom, the the photos can be easily found and viewed. What could possibly go wrong in this thorough plan?

Well, according to one of the pioneers of the internet, Vint Cerf, this plan has a serious flaw – electronic storage only is dangerous and data formats are constantly evolving. We are putting everything into files, but will those files be readable in the future? Will they disappear when the electronic media goes bad or is tossed with a broken computer? Cerf used the term “Electronic Dark Ages” to describe the loss of all this data which may never be seen again.

I heard about this, on NPR, a few weeks ago, and, initially, this didn't seem, to me, to be a problem unique to electronic files. People have thrown away tons of photos, artwork, and documents through the years. Lots of historic and/or meaningful work ended up on the scrap heap. How is this different than the electronic files?

But there is a difference: The old photos and documents existed in the physical world. Some of them were discovered and preserved. People found them in attics or old shoe boxes. Some of these items haven't been seen in decades or longer, until somebody found them. However, they still existed to be found.

Besides the multitude of family photos I have, I've mentioned that I play around with genealogy. I try to get everything I can from family members and add the scans to my records. Whenever I connect with some distant branch of our large family and we exchange information, one of the first things I ask is, “Can I borrow any old photos you have?” I have more than 1,000 of them in my records, but they don't exist in the physical sense because I haven't printed them.

1890s family portrait. Don't let them disappear.

1890s family portrait. Don't let them disappear.

If we scan everything but don't make physical copies, the photos and documents can disappear with a single hard drive failure. Not everyone has the strict back-up regimen you and I have. In fact, the vast majority of people don't back up anything. Every day, photos and documents are lost when phones and hard drives go bad. If they were never printed or shared, they cease to exist.

Let's take this beyond the family photos that you treasure and are treasured by others in your family. Have you got a physical print of your best or favorite photos? It may be impossible to print every photo in your collection – I'm pretty ruthless with the DELETE button, but I still have well over 75,000 photos on my hard drives. When you die will anyone know where to find these photos on your computer? Will they even think to look for them?

Sadly, too many will not. The work that you poured your heart and soul into could be completely lost. But, if they find your box of prints, they'll appreciate them and, maybe, preserve them. This year, one of my personal projects is to make single prints and books to ensure my work, at least, has a chance of being preserved. I've left notes, with my will, on where to find all my electronic files. It's easy, since they're all in one folder. I just hope one of my descendants will care enough to preserve them, whether they're in a physical or electronic state.

You may think this is a morbid discussion, but that's no reason to ignore it and do nothing. It is a scientific fact that everyone involved in photography will, eventually, die. I hear this is true of other people, too. ;-) Your work might live longer than you if you take some additional steps to help preserve it. It may have value decades from now to someone you'll never meet. Wouldn't that be nice?