How Can It Be The Dark Ages When My Screen Is All Lit Up?

How Can It Be The Dark Ages When My Screen Is All Lit Up?

by Kerry Scott on 31 July 2010

The genealogical community is abuzz over an article that appeared in the Mormon Times this week (yes, here in genealogy-land, breaking news comes from the Mormon Times).  The gist of it is that Curt Witcher, a high-profile guy in genealogical circles, thinks that genealogy is entering “a new dark age,” because historical and vital records are being lost, and because people’s memories aren’t being preserved.

I confess:  I rolled my eyes when I read it.

Witcher does make a very good point on the loss of vital records.  Some people are dumb, and some politicians are even dumber.  This abundance of dumb has led to a complete misunderstanding of how identity theft works, and many records are being made inaccessible as a result.  At the same time, governments and organizations are struggling to make ends meet, and they’re not able to digitize or store records in the way we need them to.  That sucks.

On the flip side, many areas didn’t even keep vital records 100 years ago.  We don’t have all the records online that we’d like, but 100 years ago, we had none.  We have far better flood and fire suppression tools available to keep the existing records safe.  Things aren’t perfect, and we need to do far more, and good for Witcher for shining a spotlight on some shocking practices (Record sampling?  Really?  Who on earth thinks that’s a good idea?).  But on balance, there’s good news along with the bad.

In terms of memory-preservation though, I couldn’t disagree more with Witcher.  In fact, I’m drowning in memory preservation.  Let’s compare my theoretical life 100 years ago to my actual life now:

THEN—I have around 20 photos of my children.  A few relatives have copies of some of the photos.  All of my photos are kept in an acidic box in the attic, in the delightful Wisconsin climate, which features blistering heat in the summer and subzero temperatures in the winter.

NOW—I have thousands of photos of my children.  The photos are available online, where dozens of friends and relatives can see them, save them to their computers, order prints, etc.  My other family photos are also online, where all of the other descendants can see them.  I also have access to their photos, so I can see the ones I otherwise would have missed.  The digital copies are backed up automatically, and the originals are in an acid-free box in a room with heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer.

THEN—A few of the more literate people in my family write letters.  The letters are on paper, and they’re handwritten.  The legibility varies with the quality of the handwriting.  If I lose the paper, or there’s a fire or flood or I spill my coffee, it’s gone.  I have the only copy of the letters; no one else in my family can see them unless they physically travel to my home.

NOW—Everybody under the sun has email and is on Facebook.  I read a constant stream of thoughts from them all day long, on what they had for lunch, what they think of the President, what their love life is like…complete with photos (wouldn’t you love to see the Facebook page of some of your more elusive ancestors?).  If there’s a fire or a flood or I spill my coffee, I can just log on from another computer and it’s all there.  I can print perfectly-legible emails for my own files, save them to my computer (which is automatically backed up every night), and forward them to as many people as I want.  Written correspondence is no longer one-to-one; it’s one-to-many.  Additionally, I know these people much better than I would have otherwise, since I’m so involved in their day-to-day lives.  I’ll remember them better when I grandchildren ask about them.

THEN—Many people don’t get to finish high school.  College is for rich people.  These people don’t create written records recreationally.

NOW—Most people finish high school.  College is for far more people (not everyone, but not just the rich).  People who might have been working on farms or in factories now create written records all day long, in the form of email, Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts.  There are more than 200 million blogs out there, and anyone can publish anything they want, any time they want.  The number of people creating non-essential written records is far greater than ever before, and crossing all socio-economic lines.

THEN—Memories are recorded on paper.  The paper is in one place.  When it’s gone, it’s gone.

NOW—Memories are recorded online.  Google never forgets (even when you want it to).  Ask your kids how hard it is to get those pictures from college off the internet!  Of course, it’s very possible that in 50 years those pictures, and lots of other stuff, WILL be gone.  Some of it will still be there, though, and 100 years ago, we had none of it.

THEN—You are remembered primarily by the people who knew you in person…those who lived nearby or visited often.  People who lived far away and didn’t visit were out of the loop.  Families could easily lose touch in a generation.

NOW—Geography is irrelevant.  I didn’t know my husband had second cousins living all over the country until we both joined Facebook.  He hadn’t seen or talked to them since he was a small child, and he didn’t even know where all of them lived.  Now I know them, I know their children, I know where they work, and I know what they’re doing this weekend.  Those people would have been lost to us completely.  Now they aren’t.  In 50 years, I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren who their grandpa’s second cousins were, because I met them.  Online.

THEN—I’m the family genealogist.  I keep my files in a box.  When I die, someone throws out the box.

NOW—I keep my files online.  Dozens of other people have downloaded them.  When I die, they live on.  My husband can get on my computer, see all of the distant cousin researchers I’ve corresponded with, and send them the paper files I leave behind.

THEN—We go to the local library and look in phone books to find distant living relatives.  We need to already know where they live, and we need to have a library that has that location’s phone book.

NOW—We google.  We find them.  We email them.  We can get this done in the time it takes to make a box of macaroni and cheese (true story—I’ve done it).

Bottom line:  This is not a dark age.  This is a different age.  Like every generation, we think all this change means the end.  It doesn’t.  Like every generation, we need to make an an effort to preserve history for our children.  We need to back up those files, save those emails, and label those photos.  That’s always been the case, but I think we’re up to the challenge.

All of this feels new and scary, but really, it’s just…different.

Photo by egorick

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Tiner August 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

As a genealogist I would think that drowning in memory preservation would be akin to Christmas. You make very good points, though it does seem like a shame to destroy perfectly good paper records.


Pat Salt August 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I agree that the real point is saving all this stuff as we find it, make it (and label what we know about papers and photos). I would suggest that blogging is one of the ways we tell longer stories for our children (emails and tweets and Facebook don’t encourage length mostly).



Martin August 6, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I think you’re missing the point. We can save all these things from today and even from the last 100 years. The items in danger are the things over 100 years old. They are the court cases, books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that may not get preserved. It would be sad if 100 years from now, your descendants can trace back to you and get your materials only to get a brick wall in 1880.


Cynthia Shenette August 7, 2010 at 11:03 am

Kerry, thanks for the interesting post. I don’t really think it’s an either/or situation, but a melding of the old and the new. We need to appreciate and embrace the new technologies, but understand that everything will never be online. How many people really print out their day-to-day e-mail correspondence? On the flip side, in the old days not everyone saved every letter. One thing has remained consistent throughout history–the trash bin. Today I can find things online that 20 years ago would have either taken twice the time or been impossible. Scanned documents are the ideal, while text-only transcriptions of original documents and primary sources still leave something to be desired. There’s always human error. I agree with Martin that it is still important to do what we can to preserve the old. What’s the solution? I wish I knew. Thanks for making me think about it though…


Kerry Scott August 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Martin—as I said in the post, I agree with Witcher that those older 1880s documents are in danger. Governments and organizations are making bad decisions, partly because of budget cuts, and partly because of a lack of understanding of the mechanics of identity theft. No argument there.

On the flip side, those documents were in danger 100 years ago. Fires and floods were far more common then than they are now (thanks to new technology that helps prevent/minimize both hazards). While not everything is scanned today, nothing was scanned back then. We certainly do need to be vigilant, but the news is not all bad.

My disagreement comes with the second part of Witcher’s argument, which has to do with contemporary record-keeping. I think much of the “danger” there is really a lack of understanding of (or perhaps comfort with) technology and the ways people are using it.


kario August 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

It’s funny how, whenever there is a culture shift, there is a contingent that feels instantly lost, and there are others who embrace the new solutions. Maybe the trick is to listen to both, put away our fears, and try to have an objective perspective as much as possible. Thanks for your viewpoint.


Kenny Sallee August 10, 2010 at 3:10 pm

OK – this was a good article. I especially like the ‘abundance of dumb’ comment! You mind if I use that at work? There’s a lot of dumbness around here. Thanks for the laugh and insightful article Kerry


Kerry Scott August 10, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Kenny—absolutely. Maybe you could say it in German, so the dummies don’t know you’re talking about them.


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