Tuesday, August 3, 2010

About Those Predictions of Doom

Don't reach for your tinfoil hat right yet or get your genealogy data bunker ready. Despite all the hubbub about comments made by Curt B. Witcher at the recent BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, I have to respectfully disagree with those comments as they pertain to genealogy data and its preservation.

Perhaps it is the fact that I usually take a dim view of any predictions of doom, perhaps it is my self-characterization as a "glass half-full" kind of guy, I'm not sure.  But if anything, the use of the word doom so close to the words genealogy and data, will absolutely catch my attention and force me to investigate further.
  • Should we be worried about the destruction of records at court houses and other governmental institutions?  Of course, but is this worry a new one?  There has always been the need for vigilance and outside watch dogs to keep tabs on these vital sources of information.
  • Should we be concerned that people are not preserving their communications as they once did, say in the letter writing days? We communicate in a variety of different ways in the 21st century and while letter writing is not among the top methods, as new modes of sending information develop, so too do means of archiving and saving such data.  Take Twitter for instance: the Library of Congress recently announced that it has acquired the entire Twitter archive.
  • Are we doing enough personally to preserve our own information, such as email? Even for a techie like me, email management is a nightmare.  But the focus should be on backing up ALL of our own data - whether it be genealogy-related or not.  This is my monthly rallying call on the first of each month at GeneaBloggers when Data Backup Day arrives.
One comment with which I agree whole-heartedly, especially as a blogger, is the advice to just write.  I've said this hundreds of times when someone says, "I don't want to get into blogging about my family history because I am such a poor writer."  Nonsense, I say.  Don't write for anyone but yourself.  Write from your heart.  Write to give your ancestors new voices in these modern times.  Write to preserve their memories, and your family's memories, and your memories of all of them.

These are hopeful times in my opinion especially with all the technology available for us to digitize and preserve records.  But we should not become complacent in the fact that technology will take care of this all by itself.  Data preservation does require vigilance, it requires watch dogs and it requires rallying calls.  I just don't know that a doomsday prediction is the right call.


© 2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

8 comments:

Kerry Scott said...

I couldn't agree more...and you said it much more diplomatically than I did.

Carol Yates Wilkerson said...

This is meant respectfully, but after reading Curt's views it seemed more like disinformation rather than anything helpful. I too believe in being vigilant when it comes to personal and community records, but his comments seemed meant more to be scare tactics than actual truths. Your article made much more common sense.

Claudia's thoughts said...

Just remember all the doom and gloom concerning the arrival of Y2K. That did not materialize either.

Peter Gailey said...

Thomas,
This is an interesting set of posts. Please allow me to jump in. As a long time data storage and data management expert, I could not agree more with the state of Data Preservation that Mr Witcher describes. As a reference report see the “Digital Preservation report National Blue Ribbon council” at:

http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Interim_Report.pdf

This is a long read, but well worth it if you are an archivist.

Long term data preservation takes many areas of expertise. First understand that the majority of new data is being generated in a digital format. IT is estimated that 98% of all new data is being generated in a digital format.

Genealogy is a very specific field with the definition of “Long Term Data Preservation” being forever. In order to preserve data forever, it is necessary to have the technologies, and methodologies to consistently manage change.

An example (For individuals.) when you purchased your first PC circa 1989, it had an 8” Floppy Disk Drive (FDD). Then the “Back-Up” media eventually changed to a 3½” FDD, then a Tape cartridge, then a Bernoulli drive, then a CD, Then a DVD, now you will more than likely get a Blue Ray device on most PCs. Also note there are different iterations of each of these technologies… High density versions etc. Technology marches on… None are compatible with eachother. Did you (As an individual) move all of your data forward through each of those technology iterations? If not… Can you find a 3 ½ FDD now, and plug it into your current PC, and read the data? Good for you if you can. Good luck if you can’t.

The same kind of technology progression has taken place in the hallowed walls of the “Data Center”. Punch Cards, Reel to Reel tape, Square tape, optical Disk etc.. Few technologies are backward compatible.

My point is that the technology moves forward. There are a major set of issues that need to be taken into account to manage data of all types, into perpetuity.

Advice to those interested… Back up your data often. Make sure you keep your valuable data in a current media form, and format. Make the effort so as not to miss a technology step, and thus make your data inaccessible.

Mr Witcher is correct in his warnings, and observations.

Sincerely,
Peter Gailey

Peter Gailey said...

Thomas,
This is an interesting set of posts. Please allow me to jump in. As a long time data storage and data management expert, I could not agree more with the state of Data Preservation that Mr Witcher describes. As a reference report see the “Digital Preservation report National Blue Ribbon council” at:

http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Interim_Report.pdf

This is a long read, but well worth it if you are an archivist.

Long term data preservation takes many areas of expertise. First understand that the majority of new data is being generated in a digital format. IT is estimated that 98% of all new data is being generated in a digital format.

Genealogy is a very specific field with the definition of “Long Term Data Preservation” being forever. In order to preserve data forever, it is necessary to have the technologies, and methodologies to consistently manage change.

To be continued in part 2

Peter Gailey said...

Part 2

An example (For individuals.) when you purchased your first PC circa 1989, it had an 8” Floppy Disk Drive (FDD). Then the “Back-Up” media eventually changed to a 3½” FDD, then a Tape cartridge, then a Bernoulli drive, then a CD, Then a DVD, now you will more than likely get a Blue Ray device on most PCs. Also note there are different iterations of each of these technologies… High density versions etc. Technology marches on… None are compatible with eachother. Did you (As an individual) move all of your data forward through each of those technology iterations? If not… Can you find a 3 ½ FDD now, and plug it into your current PC, and read the data? Good for you if you can. Good luck if you can’t.

The same kind of technology progression has taken place in the hallowed walls of the “Data Center”. Punch Cards, Reel to Reel tape, Square tape, optical Disk etc.. Few technologies are backward compatible.

My point is that the technology moves forward. There are a major set of issues that need to be taken into account to manage data of all types, into perpetuity.

Advice to those interested… Back up your data often. Make sure you keep your valuable data in a current media form, and format. Make the effort so as not to miss a technology step, and thus make your data inaccessible.

Mr Witcher is correct in his warnings, and observations.

Sincerely,
Peter Gailey

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Peter - I will take a look at the report and come back with comments.

I appreciate your take on what I call "futureproofing" data. I've written about this quite a bit and as part of Data Backup Day over at my other blog GeneaBloggers, I've tried to impress upon the genealogy bloggers that they need to keep up with the latest technological changes.

The example I always use is this: which item do you think would be more accessible 50 years from now: a photograph, or a digital scan of that same photograph? It amazes people when they realize how easy it is for file formats and access devices to become outmoded.

Peter Gailey said...

Thomas,
You need to change your example... Especially when you consider 98+% of all photos are generated in a digital format.

I use the FDD, Zip Drive, Tape, CD, DVD, BlueRay, Thumb Drive example.. All in the last 20 years. What is next?? For pictures it is Facebook and others. Facebook receives and stores 2.5+ Billion new pictures a month. (See their Business profile section of their website.) My 19 year old has 1,000 pictures there

What is not generally known is that Facebook has reduced the image quality to a "More Manageable" size. Try storing a 10 Mega Pixel photo on Facebook. then retrieve it and see what you get.

Regards,
Peter