Posted by: Bill Tracy | January 22, 2010

Web Log As Family History

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you.

-Jim Croce

Time In a Bottle

As I’ve said so often, I’m a prisoner of time. Mostly I feel like a little kid in a third-grade classroom. The teacher drones on and I look out the window wondering about all the different places there are and what’s happening in those places. Well, sometimes I get a pass out of the classroom. It’s rare. It doesn’t happen often, and like spiritual grace it is always unexpected and undeserved. Today, I got a pass.

I was reading my blog friend Jackie Donnelly’s post for yesterday, Thursday, January 21 and she wrote:

“While Sue was taking her time exploring some nook of the river bank, I moved alone through a stand of tall hemlocks and just stood and listened. At first all was motionless and silent. Then I began to notice — now here! now there! — flitting shapes in the tops of the trees, and I heard the peek! peek! peek! of a flock of chickadees dashing about in the branches above. Such dear little birds! I do believe they come to check us out.”

Standing alone in the woods and just listening! Communing with chickadees! How rare is such a thing? Then I had a vision, somewhere in the distant future a little girl is reading that passage about a woman standing alone in the woods, and she thinks wondrously, “That was my great-grandmother.” It puts that child in touch with  a mystical legacy in no other way imaginable. Neither Jackie nor any of us live forever. We all accept that fact, although most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Until now there has rarely been much of a way for most of us to pass along much about the reality of our lives (outside of genetics anyway). These Web logs offer such an opportunity.

Family birthday party.

I took this picture of a family birthday party in July, 1967. My father is in the corner with his arms around both my grandmothers. The phone on the wall has a rotary dial. This image and the information about it is now on a Web log, and 50 years from now I hope the young people who descend from my family can get this peek back at the way we were living our lives.

How much do you really know of your great-grandparents? I know a little bit through the lore inside my family, but that’s notoriously unreliable in all families. I never had any personal contact with any of them. I’ve never seen pictures of any of them. I don’t know that any of them kept journals or any kind of writings that would tell me much about them; I’ve never seen such documents. Their personalities and the everyday realities of their lives are locked away in time as surely as their bodies are entombed in the earth. It’s pretty much always been that way for most people. But the Internet and its Web logging has the power to change all that.

So many ordinary people now have this voice – and they’re using it. Judi Hahn, a woman near Cincinnati writes about her childhood experiences in Runnemede, NJ. Pete Brook writes passionately about prisons worldwide and the general dearth of photo images available to show people what it’s really like. A man in New Jersey writes about his family bar when he was growing up in Camden, NJ. A truck driver in Florida publishes what he knows and loves about creating photographic images. A writer in Texas writes about his experiences publishing true crime books. A woman from who-knows-where pens a delightfully honest story she calls her “journey from mom to teacher.” For a wonderful example of that one, read this:

All these people have families. If these digital diaries are somehow held intact, their descendants will be able to travel back from the future and have a look. They will get a personal look that is incomparable. That amazing picture they will see is one we don’t have today. I think it’s a damn exciting prospect!

All this makes me wonder about these Web logs. How permanent are they? How permanent can they be made? They’re all digital coding on computer servers somewhere. Google seems to publish most of them, but Word Press and a few others also have tens of thousands, probably millions of them. Each is a life lived and as Jim Croce sings, “time in a bottle.” Will Jackie’s great-granddaughter be able to open this message in the way that I’ve seen her do?

Yard sale.

This gang of "hillbillies" were having a yard sale in late summer or early fall of 1973. In the back is me, my Father, my brother Bob and in front is my brother Joe. We were playing it all for fun and laughs. We all found odd hats to wear. Bob's broken leg and the crutches added greatly to the look. I hope the people who are the Tracy family 50 years from now can look at this and get a sense of what we did for fun!

Right now Web logs are readily available on a quid pro quo basis – hosting companies store and serve it up for you as long as they can use that to generate advertising revenue and gather marketing intelligence. What about 20 years from now? What about 50 years from now? Will that “business model” hold? Will something else (almost certainly) replace it? When change comes what happens to the post Jackie created yesterday? Surely someone has thought of this. Yet I don’t see anything about this subject when I search.

I don’t think the technical issues of long-term preservation are very difficult. However, I do think the logistics and business issues may get complex. But I also think it is well worth a serious discussion. Thousands of personal memories are being recorded on Web logs every day now. They are a priceless treasure, and it is one I hope we don’t squander.

After all, those future generations deserve a good look back at the people who saddled them with the world they’ll be living in!


  1. But there never seems to be enough time
    To do the things you want to do
    Once you find them

    Time In a Bottle

  2. Thanks for quoting my blog, Bill. I’m happy to have brought you into that quiet woods with me.

    It does occur to me now and then, what will happen to my blog as technology changes? I have essays I wrote long ago stored on old hard discs that no modern computer could read. I suppose there might be intermediate data translators or something. But I also think of my blog as somewhat ephemeral and I do expect that it will disappear in time. And that’s okay, it was never meant to be anything permanent, at least in its current form. But future literary scholars won’t have early manuscripts of writers’ works, or records of their correspondence, either, and that’s a real loss.

  3. Bill: This is a wonderful thought. As a fine art painter, portrait artist and art conservator it is a thought that terrifies me. What if everything simply goes away and gets lost over time? I have been fortunate in that my family ancestors saved every piece of paper that contained a name, invoice, receipt, deed, photograph or…….letter. I have letters dating back to 1820 where family wrote back and forth telling everything from the price of wheat, corn and garden seeds, the weather, the time it took to travel from one State to another, to notifying the family that a husband sold their property to the railroad then felt so guilty he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Tragic, for certain, but wouldn’t it be otherwise a tragedy if all I knew about this ancestor was that he was born and then died? The written word weaves more than facts. Words leave impressions, thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds and so much more. I worry that with the age of computers the words will be lost and all will fade. I look at my daughter, now 27, who grew up in the digital age and wonder if anything she has ever written will be around for generations to come. When she went off to an out of country college I began printing out our emails to each other and keep them in a book to record her first venture out into the world. It is a remarkable record of a journey but, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t printed out on paper. Here’s hoping that everything posted on the internet will become archived somehow, by someone and become accessible records for future generations. If “they” can dig up that one embarrassing photograph that got posted online and that you hoped would be buried forever, there has to be a way to archive all the wonderful written words. Thanks for pointing me toward your thoughts. Kathryn

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