While gathering family history records over the years, you’ve probably been preserving them physically. So why consider preserving them digitally now? This article is the first in a series of five articles that discuss the benefits and challenges of using digital preservation to both augment and enhance the preservation of your family history records. It also presents solutions to the challenges, identifies what types of family history records are suitable for digital preservation, and summarizes what is required to get started archiving digital records.
Why Digital Records?
There are compelling reasons for embracing digital records. To begin with, once a treasured but very fragile historical document has been captured digitally, you’ll no longer worry about damaging or soiling it from handling. Nor will you ever grimace again over a photograph’s fading colors and diminishing contrast. You’ll also find that the 999th digital copy you make is just as bright and sharp as the original. And printing records will be simpler than ever before.
Furthermore, you’ll realize how much easier it is to organize, find, and use records by letting a computer do most of the clerical work for you. And you’ll be delighted to see how easy it is to share your family history records with others. A digital record can be emailed anywhere in the world in just seconds. If the computer file that contains the record is too large to email, you can get it to your intended destination almost as fast by using a free Internet service.
Digital record storage has other advantages. For example, it doesn’t require much physical space, so you won’t need to consume your precious real estate storing bulky boxes and costly containers. And if you use the archival storage medium recommended in this series, you won’t have to worry about factors like mold and humidity destroying your historical records.
Accessing digital records is extremely easy, and doesn’t require climbing a rickety step ladder to hunt for dusty boxes in the attic or hobbling downstairs to a musty, dark basement and brushing away cobwebs to search for something you hope is there. In fact, all your family history records can literally be just a few clicks away—at any time of the day.
Perhaps more importantly, you’re probably facing the need to preserve digital family history records anyway, since most photographs and documents are now being created digitally. “Born-digital” is a term coined for records that originate in digital form, such as a personal history written with a computer or a family photograph taken with a digital camera.
While you can print a born-digital record in order to preserve it physically, doing so will require extra work, may not retain the look and feel of the born-digital original, and may not include the descriptive information that makes organizing, finding, and using digital records so much easier. Also, preserving physical versions of born-digital records will not allow you to realize the other significant benefits described previously. In fact, very few organizations attempt to preserve born-digital records by printing them and then archiving the physical printouts.
Digital Record Requirements
Creating and preserving digital records requires (i) a computer with appropriate software, (ii) the means to digitize physical records (i.e., convert them from paper or analog to digital), and (iii) the ability to preserve the digitized records for posterity and extended family. If you plan to share your digital records with others, you will also need access to the Internet.
Virtually all physical record types can be digitized—genealogies written in family Bibles, copies of vital records (birth, death, marriage), copies of census records, photographs, journals, written and typed documents, oral histories, newspaper clippings, family videos, handwritten or printed music, artwork, books, maps, etc. And all can be preserved digitally.
What is Digital Preservation
It is NOT merely backing up your data! Backup only provides near-term protection of your digital records.
Rather, digital preservation is a process that involves storing digital records (i) with descriptive information (ii) for a very long time (iii) in multiple locations (iv) at the highest resolution you can afford; (v) periodically migrating the records to new storage media in order to prevent data loss or the inability to read the data; (vi) changing file formats before they become obsolete; and (vii) providing access to your digital collection now and in the future.
Going beyond backup, digital preservation provides long-term protection of your digital records.
While these steps may seem overwhelming at first glance, this series discusses tools and techniques that can help to make digital preservation a straightforward and enjoyable activity.
After reading this introduction to digital records and digital preservation, you are ready for Part 2 of the series, which introduces the challenges of digital preservation and explores in detail solutions to archival storage media challenges.
This article is part of the Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally series by Gary T. Wright. Each article in the series is part of the white paper, Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally.