Genealogy: Why digitize?

Genealogy: Why digitize?As genealogists and family historians the main reasons to digitize are to enhance access or share information and improve preservation.  We are able to take bits and pieces of our heritage that are scattered among family members and put them together in a collection that can be shared via CD/DVD and Web.

Preservation through digitization
Digitization can also help preserve precious materials. Making high-quality digital images helps to reduce wear and tear on fragile items. This does not mean, however, that digital copies should be seen as a replacement for the original artifact. Even after digitization, original documents and artifacts must be cared for, as digital files are not permanent and must be periodically transferred to new formats.

The fragility of digital materials
It’s not secret how fragile our digital images are.  We may have lost a document—or not been able to open a file because the image was corrupted or we didn’t have the necessary software.  It is best to learn how to work effectively with these materials since digital images are here to stay. In 2003, less than .01 percent of the world’s information was produced with ink and paper.

How long will the media last?  The estimates range from 20-200 years for media such as CD/DVDs.  The Library of Congress, which holds over 150,000 audio CDs in optimal conditions, estimated that 1-10 percent of the discs in their collection have serious errors.

Digital images offer us the ability to perfectly store an image and precisely reproduce that image every time we use it. From the master file we are able to easily make perfect duplicates in an array of formats depending upon our need (e.g., printing and sharing via internet, CD).  It’s that same perfection that creates our dilemma.

With digital files, any amount of distortion can make the file unusable. A magnetic field or a stray static charge can cause irreversible damage to a digital file (e.g., Word document, spread sheet, photo, or website).  An image can experience pixel distortion that blurs a portion of the image or can cause the file to be completely unusable.

Simple things such as forgetting a password can make a collection inaccessible.  Digital images require hardware, an operating system, and software to view and read them properly.  A simple change in the operating system can make a computer unusable because its capacity is not large enough to manage the new files.   A software program used to create a file is the only software that can read the image and thus the ability to share is dramatically limited.

Digital libraries give us the ability to search thousands of documents in seconds that might otherwise take weeks, months, or even years of tedious searching to find.

Digital preservation is a very serious matter.  With technology changing so fast, there are no absolutes about the exact formula for digitally preserving our family heritage, which will be a combination of artifacts that include text, data, and images, audio and video.  However, there are some best practices of archivists that have responsibility for preserving our national and cultural heritage that we can learn from.
Information created and stored digitally is at risk for loss in two important ways

  • Obsolescence. Obsolescence can affect all facets of the archival storage function, including hardware, software, and even the arrangement of the data in a stored file. The damaging effects of obsolescence can occur in an alarmingly fast pace. Digital information is also vulnerable to physical threats.
  • Physical damage. Physical damage can occur to multiple components required to create, store, and access digital information, namely hardware and media.

Reality Check

  • A file format may be superseded by newer versions, which may no longer be supported by the current vendor or relevant standards body.
  • Storage medium may be superseded by newer and denser versions of that medium, or by new types of media—smaller, denser, faster, and easier to read.
  • The device needed to read a storage medium may no longer be manufactured.
  • Software used to create, manage, or access digital content may be superseded by newer versions or newer generations with more capabilities using the most current technologies.
  • Computers of every size and scale are continually superseded by faster and more powerful machines that can store and process more and more content.
  • Vendors of all technologies compete, emerge, merge, and fade making it even more difficult to maintain digital content over time.
  • Computer components and media can physically fail due to human error, natural events, and even just the passing of time.

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