Storytelling is a center of attention at the annual RootsTech genealogy and family history conference. During a stroll around the exhibit hall you’ll find new services for uploading stories to share on to the web, others to help you record or transcribe stories, not to mention plenty of videographers who will record you and your family telling stories. I appreciate the value of placing stories at the heart of family history.
I fear that a critical idea is getting lost in the process of saying “gee whiz” to the latest storytelling systems which will be both fun and so easy that all you need to do is click your mouse. Sharing and preservation are not the same thing. The emphasis with many of the new web-based storytelling systems is on sharing. But family historians need to give at least equal attention to the preservation of their family stories.
Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, told David Pogue of the N.Y. Times, “Web sites are fine for sharing, but in terms of preserving your data, I wouldn’t recommend it.” The first concern is the reliability of online services. Spicer explained, a large photo site went “…out of business, and they gave people, I think, a month’s notice to say, “We’ve run out of money, get your photos off the site and put them somewhere.”
Spicer’s second concern is with data rot. He explained, “Data rot refers mainly to problems with the medium on which information is stored.” Kari Krauss, a professor of Information Studies at University of Maryland has warned that “…for all its many promises, digital storage is perishable.... Disks corrode, bits “rot” and hardware becomes obsolete.” Remember 8-track and VCR tapes?
Says Spicer, “…consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years. If Moses had gotten the Ten Commandments on a floppy disk, it would never have made it to today.”
With that caveat in mind, the family historian should realize that paper books remain the best way to preserve family stories well into the future. The new digital storytelling platforms offer some wonderful features, but multiple platforms, both digital and print, offer the best way to take advantage of those features while assuring that your family heritage will be preserved for future generations.