It is intriguing that the physical records of the world’s great human cultures have become progressively less durable through the march of time and invention. From stone to clay to wood to paper to magnetic tape to digital files. We have become ever more flexible and inventive but our records are fragile and far less durable.

While professional conservators wrestle with the vital complexities of preserving such treasures as the US Constitution and Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, the family archivist needs to be concerned with fading photographs and brittle 8mm film. Some of the conundrums in the professional world are applicable to the amateur conservator but practical solutions are far more important because we don’t have the budget or the expertise of the Smithsonian!

Quick definitions …

Media: I am referring to “media” as the physical materials used to hold information. Paper (parchment) was the media used for the US Constitution of course and plaster (fresco) was the media for the Last Supper.

Format: This is perhaps a more contemporary concept born of the digital era but in general I use it to refer to a choice among various options that may exist for using a particular media. It can become sticky because one could argue that the English language was the format of the Constitution or that a specific type of ink was the format. But this is less relevant to the topic at hand than defining a “file format” for use with digital media (and I am not writing a thesis).

What is the Problem?

One of the most important decisions made by the family archivist is often made without conscious debate or consideration. It is often a decision made by a manufactured device and a particular technology of the day. It may be a decision we have little practical control over. What format are we using to preserve our various materials?

It certainly was not long ago that the venerable cassette tape appeared to be ubiquitous. Who could be blamed for recording a conversation with a grandparent using a cassette recorder in 1970? But only about 40 years later that same recoding would likely be made using an iPod or some other MP3 recoding device.

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