Preserving memories and artifacts in a digital age: What do we hold on to?

baby Nancy

Guess who?

Death, moving, divorce, and other life changes can force you to make decisions about what you want to remember, and what you want to keep. And in a digital age, how will you save and access the memories and artifacts you treasure?

In the past year and a half, I had to confront the death of my friend and coach George Gluppe. A few months before he died, I helped George move from our home of over 20 years; he could no longer navigate the stairs. Then I moved out of the house myself.

At the same time, my parents had to sell the house they had owned in Toronto for 52 years and move into a seniors’ apartment; I could no longer visit my childhood home. Finally, last week, my former husband Paul moved out of our family home.

All of these events, plus the untimely death of my friend Dave Reed in 2008, forced me to think about the possessions people choose to hold on to during their lives.

I have three main questions:

Why do we want to remember?

Who do we preserve memories for—
• ourselves?
• our children and grandchildren?
• our friends?
• the world: to be a witness of the meaning we’ve constructed of our lives?

How do we hold on to our memories in today’s multimedia world?

Journals, photos, and books are increasingly digitized and don’t exist in a graspable physical form. Will our generation lose much of our recorded traces as computers fail or are thrown away? How many people will keep up with the task of organizing, preserving, and changing the formats of their digitized records?

hardware for saving files

Modern memory

When Dave died, he was only 54 years old. I was one of the few people who went through his sparse belongings, deciding what to keep. This was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever had to do.

Sifting through a deceased person’s things can evoke great sorrow, discomfort, (or, contradictorily, comfort), and amazement. It makes you think about the significance of that person’s life. More than anything, it makes you think about what you are keeping yourself, and what will happen to it when you are gone.

Gathering together many of Dave’s old newspaper clippings, photos, and other paraphernalia of a life that was infused with his passion for running and other sports, I realized that the value of a person’s life is best recognized when all these things are shared. I was the organizer of a memorial for Dave where George, running friend Warren McCulloch, Dave’s family members from back East, and many of Dave’s friends shared their thoughts about him. Showing Dave’s mementos to his friends affirmed what he had accomplished in life. It gave a partial answer to the question: What was Dave’s essence?

The single possession of Dave’s that impressed me the most was a collection of race numbers that I had been unaware of until I cleaned up his apartment. It turned out that for decades, Dave had been saving every race number he ever ran with. On each number, he wrote details about what happened in the race: not only his own performance, but who the race winners were; times; splits; race tactics; weather conditions; prizes; etc. That collection of numbers was a treasure trove of Canadian distance running history, at least the level of it at which Dave was a participant. Many famous Canadian road races and distance running stars were represented on those numbers.

That collection of numbers is gone now. It was accidentally thrown out after the memorial—because I didn’t care enough to pay attention. A loss like this forces you to ask more questions: How long do you keep things that were once so treasured by the deceased person? Do you keep things that have no significance to you, simply because you can’t bear to lose all reminders of the person who is gone?

That is what I had to ask myself when George Gluppe passed away last April. George was one of my life’s greatest friends. He was also the coach who recognized my best inborn ability and changed the direction of my life. As I had done for Dave, I shared many of George’s treasures at a memorial service. Warren McCulloch put together a wonderful PowerPoint presentation from George’s old scrapbooks and scanned photos from many personal sources. This slide show helped create a structured, meaningful account of George’s life and achievements.

Adding to the PowerPoint presentation were the heartfelt testimonies given by many of George’s friends, some of them his contemporaries and others former students and athletes he had inspired almost 40 years ago. And that experience—the memorial service itself—was videotaped by my partner Keith Dunn. I will always be grateful to Keith and Warren for helping me keep a record of both George’s life and of that day, when so many old friends gave me comfort through their moving words about George.

By the time of George’s memorial service (over a month after his death), I had already sold or given away most of his material possessions. But I’ve kept the things that remind me of who he was at the height of his powers—those old photos that show him triumphantly crossing track finish lines in first place…

There are other things of his that are of no use to me or anyone else, but it’s hard to give away all those traces of a person you loved. I still have many boxes of his personal things in one of my closets. It hurts to let go of everything. Similarly, I couldn’t bear the thought of “unfriending” George on Facebook.

I still have two of George’s computers. In the last ten years of his life, George became more computer-savvy than almost anyone else his age. He took countless photos, and in his last years moved on to videos, experimenting with several video sites.

So George left a huge photographic and video record. However, the trouble with saving things on a computer is that they’re not always easy to retrieve—and George was as digitally disorganized as he was physically messy. One of George’s computers isn’t working, either. An expert may or may not be able to help me retrieve its contents.

Ironically, George’s Facebook page provided an easy way to capture many of his videos. Recently, Joseph Kibur, who obviously hasn’t “unfriended” George either, shared some of George’s videos on his own page. As I watched those blurry videos of Joseph and I groaning at the gym, I was grateful to be able to hear George’s voice again.

Saving my own memorabilia


A journal from 1979. I’ve kept journals for about 43 years.

When I moved into my own apartment more than a year ago, I brought a lot of my past with me. It seems to be a part of human nature to want to hold on to a record of one’s life. Some of the things I couldn’t throw away were childhood books, some of my early essays from elementary school, my university biology honours thesis, boxes of the diaries and journals I’ve kept since I was eleven years old, old letters, and hundreds of book reviews I’ve written.

an old children's book

I hang on to old books. Their original owners were all between seven and nine years old. This one was my mother’s.

If I ever became a famous person, all these boxes of written material would be a treasure trove for a biographer. But what is the chance of that? Approaching zero. No, it’s for myself that I’m keeping all this stuff.

old copy of Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

My aunt received this book as a present on her ninth birthday. It became one of my favourite books.

Cover of Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

I was obsessed with Mary Poppins: the movie was the first I’d ever seen in a theatre. It took me a while to accept that I’d never be able to fly with an umbrella like her.

When I started my “Olympic Training Log” posts on my WordPress blog in November of 2011, I was glad I had kept all my training logs as well as race results, newspaper articles, photos, and other running documents and souvenirs. It was fascinating to discover how incomplete or inaccurate memory can be.

The move to digital records

Now I hardly ever write anything in pen-and-paper format. My work, my journals, and my photos are all on my computer. It was simpler to ensure that these things got saved when they were in a physical form, even though they took up space and became somewhat degraded with time.

How many of us copy our computer’s contents regularly? How many of us have experienced a disastrous loss of valuable material through computer disasters or theft? It’s a challenge to be organized and to save work regularly in a reliable way. Technology is always changing, too. You have to keep copying from one medium to another.

The Internet gives us many choices about where we can store vast amounts of data, whether it is written or visual material. Yes, we can create virtually unlimited content—but it’s meaningless unless we can find it. We’ll never be able to put our fingers on a specific article or photo unless the whole system has been assembled in a coherent, logical way.

Institutions are grappling with the cost and complexity of preserving books and other media

When faced with the problem of what to save, and how to do it technically, institutions face many of the same challenges that individuals do, except on a huge scale. Moreover, institutions bear the huge responsibility of preserving human culture and knowledge. A full overview of how libraries, museums, and other institutions are storing materials is beyond the scope of this post, but I can mention the approach of Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) as one example.

A Globe and Mail article by Kate Taylor, published on May 18, 2013, describes the efforts of the NFB to digitize its documents. In spite of the technical, legal and financial difficulties of digitization, NFB chief Tom Perlmutter has pushed this project relentlessly. Out of two dozen digital formats now available, the NFB has been able to use “a just-in-time system that turns each celluloid treasure into a relative small ‘mezzanine’ file from which other formats can be generated.” The NFB now offers more than 2,000 films from its catalogue online at Smartphone and tablet apps are also available.

Remembering too much

Recent articles in The Globe and Mail have introduced the idea that new technology has enabled us (or at least our devices) to remember too much.

In a Globe and Mail article from May 4, 2013, reporter Drew Nelles, referring to the Rehtaeh Parsons story, writes that technology is not allowing us to forget anymore—and that’s not always a good thing. Nelles quotes Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor at Oxford University, who says that human memory, on its own, is selective and imperfect. Mayer-Schonberger explains:

Human forgetting actually performs a very important function for us individually as well as for society. It lets us act and think in the present rather than be tethered to an ever-more-comprehensive past. The beauty of the human mind and human forgetting is that, as we forget, we’re able to generalize, to abstract, to see the forest rather than the individual trees.

Yet new technologies are making it ever-more-possible to expand the number of trees in our individual forests. For example, you can buy Memento, “a lifelogging camera” that you attach to your clothes. It will take two geo-tagged photos every minute, for a mere $279. Google Glass, a wearable computer that comes with a camera, will also soon be available.

But how many photos do we need? How many can we process? How many can we value?

I’m guilty of being a big fan of digital photography. I’m an amateur who has no technical training in photography, but I know if I take a hundred photos I’ll get a few good ones. Like many other people, I share a lot of photos on Facebook—others might prefer Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, or a photoblog. It’s fun to share and to get responses, but what about a permanent record?

Last weekend Ian Brown wrote an article in The Globe and Mail entitled “Six Billion Photos and Nothing to See.” (You can read the online version here.) He described his experience being a judge for the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival photography competition. The contest specified that photographers had to submit “striking and well-composed images to tell a visual story, a photo essay, about wildlife or wilderness…”

Brown and his fellow judges ended up awarding no prize—because not a single photographer had succeeded in telling a story with his work.

I think back to the middle-class photography of my childhood. My parents started putting photos in a family album when I was a baby. That one photo album records about fifteen years of our family’s life. The first eight years’ worth of photos are all black-and-white. They document the arrival of my two younger brothers. They show many of the everyday events of our lives: birthday parties, splashing in the backyard wading pool, playing rough-and-tumble with our dad, and reading together at bedtime (with those innocent, freshly-scrubbled-from-the-bath faces). A few special times are recorded, like our annual summer trips to the cottage we rented at Lake Shebeshekong near Parry Sound.

What I remember is how many times we looked at that photo album as we grew up. We loved seeing our younger selves. That album captured a big part of our family’s history, and every photo in it is indelibly imprinted on my mind. Will children these days go over their parents’ computer photo files in the same way?

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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1 Response to Preserving memories and artifacts in a digital age: What do we hold on to?

  1. Pingback: Memorabilia from the 1932 Olympics: Photo blog | NancyRuns&Writes

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