We Need Better Archive Tools

I ran across an article in the NY Times recently that discussed concerns that a large portion of our history, recorded on tapes, vinyl records, slides, movies film, and paper is in real danger of being left in limbo because of the lack of means to digitize these artifacts. What was surprising to me is that, according to the article, only 10 percent of the records in the Library of Congress are planned to be digitized. I realize that digitizing 132 million pieces of public record is a daunting task, but this is America and I believed that someone somewhere was about the task of insuring that all of those artifacts are recorded for posterity.

I imagined some gray-haired, bifocaled geezer slowly shuffling about, carefully locating, photographing, annotating, then storing away our nationis precious historical treasures.

Obviously my idyllic view of the archiving process needs tweaking, it would take an army of these geezers to make even a dent in the task of digitizing our historical documents and artifacts.

The Library of Congress, huge by any measure, is hardly the only place where historical documents and artifacts are stored. Many cities and boroughs throughout this country have museums that focus on local historical events and luminaries; these need saving too.

Then thereis our personal historical documents and artifacts.

Human history is not only defined and documented by artists and famous people, our day to day lives are filled with records, some important, some inconsequential, that detail who we are and what weive done.

On any given day my snail-mailbox is filled with credit card and mortgage offers, sales flyers, and propositions from Columbia House stating that they would give me X number of DVDs of my choosing if only I would buy Y number of DVDs at full price. Buried among the advertising detritus are my bills and the rare cards and letters from friends and relatives. These bits of my life occupy every corner of my desk, and in the file cabinet next to my desk, and in notebooks that were meant to help me organize this mess, and in a pile next to my night stand, and in various drawers around the house, and in a plastic container in the garage, and? well, you see the problem. I bet Iim not alone, many of you may be harboring hordes of documents and other media, saving them for whatever reason. And like museums around the country, we are in danger of losing our history.

Records of our familiesi past were kept in shoe boxes and stored in so many top shelves in closets, or in the proverbial trunk in the attic or basement. We are under the misconception that our letters, cards, movies and photos are stored safe and sound, and will be there when Aunt Bessie calls looking for a photo or letter from Great Uncle Zeke when he was in Africa hunting wildebeest.

If we are lucky, if we are not affected by fires, floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes, if lightning never strike, meteors or 100 pound chunks of frozen urine never fall on our humble homes we may be able to run up to the attic, down to the basement, or dash into the closet and fetch said photo and make dear Aunt Bessie happy. A brief scan of any recent newspaper will tell you that your luck may be running out.

Those of us who are technically inclined create digital archives. We scan in photos and documents, then store them on CD or DVD believing that in doing so, we may advert the loss of information, if not the originals themselves. Once digitized, however, we must resort to the tactics left to our brothers and sisters with lower than average G.I.Q. (Geek Intelligence Quotient); they rely on low-tech solutions like fire-proof safes, strong boxes, and even renting a safe deposit box at the local bank.

The difference, of course, is that digitized documents can be sent to anyone via the Net, or we can print out a copy of that photo of Uncle Zeke (with dead wildebeest), or maintain a neat archive of my bills for the last 5 years on DVD.

The problem is that, even for folks with high G.I.Qs, digitizing stuff is not nearly as simple as it should be.

This looks like a job for Apple, or some enterprising software or hardware vendor. How hard would it be to develop a process with the right tools thatis easy to understand and follow? Something that would accommodate any type of archiving endeavor, be it your monthly bills, your photo collection, or old letters from old girlfriends, (Not girlfriends who are old, though you could store those too. The letters, not the girlfriends.) and allow you to combine files into one document. The resulting document should be a file type that is open, like Open Document (.odf) or XML (.xml). Lastly, we should be able to browse our archived documents much in the way we do pictures in iPhoto.

Archiving our information is not just an exercise in clutter reduction, it is essential in maintaining our history. With a simple interface, I believe an archive application would sell like snow cones in an Arizona summer. I know the Library of Congress could sure use one.