My Grandfather's Data

The urge to preserve the recorded artefacts from our ancestors is basic - the stories we tell to keep their memories alive are so much more vibrant, and more easily recalled and re-told when they're anchored to a photo, a video or a letter. But how do we collect and preserve all that data: the photos, the letters, the videos, the documents and emails? My father's father left behind precious little in the way of recorded information - to my knowledge there's a handful of photos and a letter he wrote to my uncle, which I've seen but not read. No doubt there is more, but not substantially so. It's a simple decision for those who possess these artefacts to preserve them all, to the greatest degree practical. No need to organise and catalogue the contents - there is just so little there to preserve. But things are changing.The physical record of my father is already far richer in content. He has lived through an age when high-quality colour photography became widely available and affordable, first in the form of 35mm film, then in digital photography. He's been writing documents and mail (paper and, later, electronic) on a PC since purchasing a computer (an Intel 80286 based machine with a whopping 1MB of RAM) around two decades ago as a mature-age university student. We've never been the sort of family to make home-movies, but with phones and stills-cameras now offering video recording as standard, the temptation to flick over from stills to video every so-often is becoming irresistible. Even so, thus far the sum of all this information might amount to a only shelf full of photo-albums, a few binders full of documents, and literally a few minutes of video.
Skip forward now to the generation that will call me grandfather (hypothetical, since I have no children of my own at this point). As a third child, whose parents had grown tired of photographing children and their antics, my own early childhood shall retain some level of dignified mystery. However, as point-and-shoot film cameras gained popularity my life, at-least the part of it I spend at family gatherings, has been subject to far greater scrutiny. Now, between my family's photos of me and my own photos of the things in my life, there are literally thousands of images that I'll be leaving behind for my grandchildren to sort through. I've done them the favour of scanning the 1424 frames of my own films that were remotely worth looking at, but I fear it will be small consolation when they find the 8724 photos I've taken on my first DSLR since purchasing it just three years ago, or the tens of thousands more that I intend collect over the next several decades. I still have most of the personal emails I've sent and received in the course of my adult life. It is no slight upon this hypothetical generation when I suggest that the probably won't bother reading even the tiniest fraction of them: I can't imagine anything much more boring than reading through the minutiƦ of someone's electronic correspondence.
This is not the part where I start to rant about the folly of all this vast collection of data and preach a return to "simpler times" when people only recorded the things that "really mattered". Actually I think it's all rather wonderful, and I envy my grandchildren the high-definition, wide-screen, surround sound view that they will have into what will no-doubt be regarded as the quaint, old-fashioned times in which we live. I have just two questions:
  1. What plans, if any, do you have for collecting preserving the data left behind by your grandparents, or parents?
  2. What plans, if any, do you have for curating your own data to present it in the most accessible way for your grandchildren. Will you be leaving behind an unsorted blob of information, or picking out the most interesting parts for easy access? Will you delete all the saucy bits, leave them stand, or lock them in some kind of data time-capsule, to be opened only after all your children have died, to save them the embarrassment?
In answer to the first, since I can produce passable scans of both film and prints, I think perhaps I should take it upon myself to collect the few photos that exist of my grandfather. The second is far more difficult - I expect the most I can hope to manage is to keep the record in a single, largely unsorted, uncatalogued blob. I can't imagine wishing to censor anything. In-fact, I intend to be the kind of old man that drops the most inappropriate details of youthful follies into casual conversation. You have been warned.


Amy said...


1. I have a huge collection of photographs from my grandparents, including photos of my grandparents' parents. Luckily, they've been stowed away from sunlight since forever, but thank you for reminding me that I need to get them transferred for my niece.

2. I don't have children. My sister-in-law is the official curator for my niece, but I am trying to save what I have from our side of the family for her and for my cousins' children, in case they ever want to look at it.

There's nothing saucy except for a few photos of Uncle Percy with a cigar - Uncle Percy was my grandmother's father, and he was kind of a rogue - and no doubt any kind of tobacco products will, by the time these children look at them, be considered saucy as hell.

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