Protecting Family Archives

With the recent spate of tornadoes and the upcoming hurricane season it is time to think seriously about those backups and archiving tasks that you have been putting off. To help you get started I am posting an excerpt from the archiving chapter in my book Tell Your Story and Save the World.

When considering the archiving of personal or family historical records, photographs, and digital assets, it helps to establish a time horizon over which the archive will be expected to exist with a high degree of certainty. In this era, where Moore’s Law implies rapid changes in technology, five to ten years can feel like a long time. However, for archival purposes we may be interested in time frames on the order of 100 or more years. We can assume that, under normal conditions, most of the materials we take only reasonable care to preserve will exist intact in the shorter five to twenty year time frames, less so with longer terms of twenty to 100 or more years. If we were to estimate a probability associated with survivability in which we took into account a number of risk factors, we would expect to see some type of downward curve where the curve started heading toward zero somewhere out past the twenty year mark. This of course greatly depends on the materials in the archive but when we say “reasonable care” we are not applying typical archival standards. For example, a color photograph processed from a negative using standard processes in the 1980s will survive twenty to thirty years stored in a dark place and will most likely suffer some color degradation over that time period, subject to the chemistry in the dyes and environmental conditions. It is possible to scan such an image, correct the color change digitally, and output to a more stable image format provided the restoration is performed before unrecoverable color changes occur. The same image displayed in a frame and subject to daylight filtering through the windows in a room will degrade at a much faster rate, typically suffering both fading and color degradation. This image may be recoverable as well depending on the extent to which changes have taken place. If we then compare the archival stability of black and white photographs printed using traditional silver halide photographic papers, we will find that they typically have a much longer stability due to the fact that the image is constituted primarily of silver rather than the dyes typical of analog color processes. Degradation of black and white photographs most often occurs due to deterioration of and contamination by materials used for mounting or storing the image. Another source of degradation is the manner in which the image was processed initially, particularly insufficient washing following processing. Under reasonable care black and white photographs may be expected to have a lifetime well exceeding 100 years. Color images printed using more recent ink printing technologies may have color stability exceeding that of analog color prints. Additional factors such as type ink technology, presence of optical brightness agents, and the nature of the substrate used for printing are all factors in archival permanence.

There are many types of media which we may be interested in preserving. These include paper, photographs, analog audio tape, digital media in various forms, and objects of man made and natural materials.


Paper has a life expectancy that varies greatly with its manufacture. Low quality paper such as newsprint contains acid which leads to destruction of the paper over time. You have probably seen old newspapers that have yellowed and become brittle. Copies of such materials printed on acid free paper should have a much longer life. For large volumes microfiche or photographic microfilm provides a means of storing information contained in newspapers.


Photographs may be printed via any number of processes onto a variety of substrates, all of which present various degrees of archival stability. Although manufacturers often publish expected archival lifetimes for their products one must take such estimates with a grain of salt. Those estimates are usually based on adherence to a specific processing recommendation that may not have been followed in the production of a particular photograph. For instance, a lab may have failed to replenish chemistry at a recommended rate or wash for recommended time. In most cases is nearly impossible to know whether such recommendations were followed.

Analog Audio and Video Tape

In the era preceding the development of digital audio and video the predominant medium for storage of audio and video data was the analog tape. This media was manufactured by depositing a layer of magnetic material onto a plastic film substrate. Recordings were made by altering the magnetic orientation of particles in the magnetic layer. The plastic substrates used tend to be reasonably stable, with lifetimes contingent on storage and environmental conditions. The magnetic layer is potentially subject to alteration by environmental magnetic fields, and may also be subject to failure of the coating over time. Aside from degradation due to such failures, additional risk exists due to the potential non-availability of equipment needed to read or play the material.

Digital Media

It would be impossible to articulate a comprehensive list of digital media simply due to the fact the field is constantly changing. In the transition from magnetic tape to disk based media we saw the implementation of digital tape followed by disks using the same coating technologies. This was followed by the hard disk and quickly thereafter with CD ROM and DVD media. Along the way we have seen pass by a few great ideas that didn’t quite catch on like the laser disk. There are also memory chip based media such as the USB stick, compact flash card, and the like.
We must also recognize that the Internet constitutes a storage medium as well. It has become a vast repository of photographs, social media interactions, discussion groups, and data storage solutions.

Each of these media types has an inherent expected lifetime. Recovery of data from failed digital media is possible, but tends to be very costly. The primary mitigation against risk of loss of digital media is the backup. A backup is a digital copy. Ideally, important data has at least two backup copies and one of those copies is stored where it is unlikely to be destroyed coincident with the destruction of the original.
Backups present two types of risk to digital data. The first is loss of the backup due to failure of the media. The second is what might be termed migration failure. Migration failure occurs when data is left on media that is either failing or subject to technological obsolescence due to cost or other factors preventing migration to new media. Thus, a backup exists, but accessing the data is difficult or impossible.


Survivability refers to the degree to which an archived item remains intact, or in the case of an item that requires an intermediary interface, is readable or otherwise accessible. A book may deteriorate rapidly due to acid in low quality paper used in its publication. An audio tape may suffer loss of the magnetic coating, making it unreadable or only partially readable. In order for a material to survive we must account for the entire range of environmental conditions to which the material may be subjected as well as conditions relating to the makeup, chemistry, structure, or other characteristics which may contribute to its deterioration. For example, the failure to properly wash a black and white photograph during processing may result in deterioration of the image due to the presence of residual fixer. It is possible to test for this but the test may result in a stain on the print. Furthermore, it is a common practice to write on the back of photographs and preservation of this writing may limit preservation efforts. A solution might be scanning and output to a more stable medium.


Readability refers both to the quality of what is preserved in terms of the accessibility of information as well as the capability to access the information when in a non-directly accessible form. A directly accessible form is one in which no intermediary device or interface is required to view or access, such as a photograph or a book. An example of a non-directly accessible form is a text file on a computer floppy disk. Reading a floppy disk would require access to a disk drive of the correct type for the disk, which in turn would require a computer with an interface compatible with the disk drive. Lack of any component in this chain renders the data inaccessible.

Personal History and the Future

We can never predict who may eventually see the product of a life story project and how it may influence those who view or read it. Impacts might be large or small in scale. No one can say what seeds for future research might be planted, or what questions might be answered. A personal history can be both an analysis of events and artifacts as well as an artifact to be discovered in the future. The initial rationale for funding a personal history project may be to share the subject’s life with grandchildren or great-grandchildren. When planning the project, try to think past the short term goals and look to the possibility of important future significance of the work. Even that which may appear on the surface to be small in importance may have tremendous future impact in understanding an event. This is an opportunity for the subject to share advice to future generations, advice that may have profound effects on the life of a future descendant.

Time Horizons

When looking to the future we should give some consideration to the time horizon involved. We tend to think of time in terms of hours, days, months, and years, but mostly the shorter of these. In terms of personal history we should be starting to think in terms of decades and centuries when we are hoping to preserve a personal history project far into the future. A time horizon may be thought of as a span of time. In considering the long term preservation of materials, there are implications inherent in a given time span, and we cannot assume anything we take as granted will be true far into the future. Modernist thought tends to place great reliance on the idea that society and science progresses to greater achievements. In reality that progress occurs slowly so we should be as proactive as possible when preserving personal history work products and not assume anything with respect to the capabilities and resources of those who later acquire the results.

Time Capsules

One means of delivering a project to the future is by way of a time capsule. A time capsule is a collection of items characteristic of a time and place that are placed together in a sealed container. Historically, they were often placed in the cornerstone of a building. Some have a specific date that they are scheduled to be opened, such as a 50 or 100 year anniversary. You can purchase a ready-made time capsule or build your own. If you build your own, choose materials that you can reliably expect to last past the time horizon and construct the time capsule in a manner which permits it to be well sealed against moisture. The materials should also be resistant to damage by insects and rodents. The capsule can be filled with an inert gas such as argon in order to protect the materials contained in the capsule from oxidation and moisture, provided the capsule is well sealed.

The Value of Personal History

– By J Michael

When we think of personal history we may tend to focus mainly on the historical aspects rather than the ontological and anthropological. History may be conceptualized as the temporal sequence of events as well as the analysis of events as causal factors on this temporal sequence. Events are agents of change. During any period of time one may start with an initial plan or expectation for what is to transpire. However, an event may occur that will alter that plan. Events, and therefore history, may be considered external to both ontological and anthropological perspectives, although events that occur and your reaction to those events is clearly driven or influenced by both. Personal history might be described as an interpretation of the life of a single individual. There are events, cultural influences, and other factors that have a direct impact to varying degrees on one’s life and how that life unfolds.
What is the value of a single personal history? Like the small contributions of scientists to the greater body of scientific knowledge, each personal history is a contribution to human progress and toward the betterment of mankind. It is never known in advance what profound effect some fact, recollection, or other contribution might have far into the future. Knowing this, how can one not preserve one’s own personal history?

On the Shoulders of Giants

– By J Michael

In 1676 Isaac Newton wrote in a letter, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton was referring to his contributions to the progression of science, where each new discovery comes as a result of the progress made by those before. Each small discovery contributes in some way to later breakthroughs. All of human progress occurs through individual effort, even when such progress occurs through the action of many individuals. Each person does his part, overcomes his limitations, and contributes to the end result. Human progress has been marked by great cultural progress, scientific achievements, and humanitarian triumphs. It has also seen serious regression through the loss of great bodies of knowledge, failures of civilizations, and great tragedies. The future is equally at risk from both natural and man-made disasters. In our day-to-day lives we give little thought to the long term impact our lives have on the world. However, just like those incremental discoveries in science, subtle inputs can have profound effects on the future and on those who follow.

Anthropologists tell us that Man has roamed the Earth for some four million years. Only in the last few thousand has a written record existed. Petroglyphs, cave paintings, and other imagery preceded writing by a significant period. What we know about prehistoric cultures is largely due to the painstaking analysis of artifacts and art left by those cultures. Much better understanding of cultures occurred once writing was invented, when records of historians’ own or other cultures began to be documented. Cultures in modern times may be observed directly. The written word is now supplemented by photographs as well as audio and video recordings. Analytical tools enable tremendous insight that was inaccessible only a few years ago. Social media is beginning to facilitate group efforts in analysis and classification. We can examine our own lives from an anthropological perspective. We often think of anthropology as the study of other cultures but place little value in studying our own. Those who look back from the future to analyze the customs, rituals, beliefs, and other cultural attributes will rely on artifacts, writings, and other media in order to gain insight. We can help by being cognizant of the many facets of our culture and writing about those, as well as preserving and documenting the interesting artifacts of our time.