Posted by: Bill Tracy | March 31, 2010

Useful in Time

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,” says the old song, That’s Amore. That’s how I felt when I read three particular words in Marilyn Johnson’s new book, This Book Is Overdue! Those three words are “…useful in time.” She is referring to her quest to save information in Web pages so she (or presumably someone else) can access them in the future. That future might be an hour from now or it might be a century, but it is not this minute.

This Book Is Overdue!

Marilyn Johnson's new book, "This Book Is Overdue! Image from

Back in January I wrote about what I see as the fragile nature of Web logs and much other personal  information now residing in Web servers all over the world. I called it Web Log As Family History. Thousands upon thousands of people are writing very personal accounts of their lives and their perceptions of current events—and illustrating them with digital images. This has never been done, at least on this personal scale, at any time in human history and it makes for a potentially priceless treasure to researchers and families in the future – if it can be saved in a way that enables access. I have not found much evidence that my concern is shared by people who can do something about it. Marilyn Johnson’s book is mostly about librarians adapting to changes in information storage and access. They are the societal keepers, so to speak; their adapting to changes gives me a sliver of hope, but to say the challenge is massive understates it by a galactic measure.

The chapter in the book, What’s Worth Saving, looks at archivists. That’s where this appears:

“The librarians and archivists I consulted were all terribly concerned about the burgeoning Web, pages disappearing from sites shutting down, the threat of data corruption, and censorship. Everyone knew stories of old blogs or photograph collections disappearing—everybody heard a whoosh in the air. ‘We’re talking about terabytes, terabytes of data, of hundreds of thousands of man-hours of work, crafted by people, an anthropological bonanza and a critical part of online history, wiped out because someone had to show that they were cutting costs,’ one blogger wrote after the disappearance of another clutch of social-networking sites. How could I capture even a few specks of this data? I wanted to reach my hand into the speeding, spinning ether of the Internet and pluck out pages, and save them in an elegant format that would be useful in time.”

Useful in time, indeed. I’m all for that! So, what has Ms. Johnson found? First, she reports that a visionary “digital librarian” named Brewster Kahle decided in 1994 that a lot of Internet stuff should be saved. He created the Internet Archive and has been literally collecting and storing the Internet ever since. Kahle describes this operation as a: “nonprofit digital library based in San Francisco that specializes in offering broad public access to digitized and born-digital books, music, movies and Web pages.” They don’t have everything, but they do have a collection of billions and billions of Web pages. There I found a personal/business Web site I published and abandoned 10 years ago—the ghost of the Blue Pencil Editorial Management service.

The Library of Congress is another major source for archived Internet materials. However, their focus is on historical significance. Also, there is the Open Directory Project, where you could submit your Web site, and hope for the best I guess. Unfortunately, little of this will ensure that in 2050 Jackie Donnelly’s great, great granddaughter will find her in the 2010 winter woods standing alone under a tree listening to chickadees—and a future sense of wonder, and spiritual connection, in the life of a marvelous and valued ancestor. So, just like when snapshot cameras proliferated in the 1950s and families began accumulating whole collections of personal visual images, it’s going to be up to us. Most of those pictures, I fear, are in boxes in attics, basements, storage units—or worse. Pure happenstance, for most of us, determines how they get passed along in most families. Same with picture collections that do make it to Web servers like Flickr and Smugmug and Picasa.

Time Enough

In the TV "Twilight Zone" episode "Time Enough at Last," inveterate reader Henry Bemis is the only man left after nuclear war. He goes to the place where human history lives--the library! At that point (early 1950s when the original story was written), books were the only repository of human experience. Image from

So, if it’s up to us, we have two issues. First, if we store things digitally, on Web sites or otherwise, how can we make sure they will be accessible in the future. We can depend on Internet Archive, but what happens when they lose funding and go belly up? More unthinkable things have happened. We can store them on our own hard drives, flash memory devices, etc. Will they last 50 years, 20 years, five years? If they do, will computer file conventions allow them to be viewed as we do today? If not, how much effort would someone have to exert to access the data? To be sure, the only solution I have is what we’ve been doing for centuries—paper.

Paper is the other issue. Even casual Internet users generate large quantities of writing and images electronically. Yesterday, for instance, I went out and took 300 pictures, then transferred them to a computer. Even if I printed a few a day, I’d be burning through printers and ink at a ferocious rate. And how long will the paper and ink last? And if I solve those problems, where do I safely store all that paper?

Someone who understands this better than most is Kathryn Rutherford, a professional “fine artist and restoration artisan.” She’s the person you go to when granny dies and you clean up the house she lived in for 75 years to sell it. That box of faded pictures that spent the last 60 years in a root cellar have a story to tell, and Ms. Rutherford is the person who can restore the ghostly images and help you research the whos and whys that will inevitably pop up. Her best advice at the moment is paper. Her latest Web log entry says when her daughter went away to college in 2000 they kept in constant touch using emails, instant messages, etc. All those digital messages would be gone now had Ms. Rutherford not had the foresight to print them onto paper. She says:

“Many years after she graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Digital Animation I was attempting to bring Tania’s attention to a particular matter and parallel her current experiences with an event in her days at University.  Her bemused look was only followed by the single comment, ‘I don’t remember that.’   I stood without speaking, retrieved the now overstuffed binder of dated pages from it’s place of honour in the top shelf of my book case and handed the book to her saying, ‘Perhaps you’d better read this.’    She was overjoyed to recall what, until that time, had been the best years of her life.”

Few of us are professionals like Ms. Rutherford so we tend not to have the motivation to save the little details of our lives. And, truth be told, I agree most of our details aren’t worth the effort to save. But some things, like a silent moment in the woods listening to chickadees, have value well beyond our temporal being.

Mary L. Tracy School

The Mary L. Tracy school in Orange, Connecticut. This is the centennial celebration year, and it was named for my great aunt in 1956.

What I experience from those saved parts of distant lives are first a personal/spiritual connection and second an educational/informational connection to another time that provides important historical perspective. I had a great aunt, Mary L. Tracy, who spent her life as a teacher in Orange, Connecticut. She was revered in the family and in her community. I visited with her a few times at the end of her life and saw how respectfully she was treated by ordinary people in the town; it seemed everyone knew her. Nearly 30 years ago I took a few pictures of the school they named for her. When I look at those pictures today they make a connection with her and the community and her time. They also enable great pride in me and my family.

Kathryn Rutherford’s current blog talks about a distant relative who committed suicide. The news comes to the family from a letter written in 1877 by his widow. She wrote that “…he shot himself through the heart.” That description carries so much information about changing times. Most people committing suicide today shoot themselves in the head—they “blow their brains out” in modern slang. Shooting oneself in the heart seems to carry so much more weight; it makes the act one of emotion–the pain of passion. The shot to the head seems more intellectual and intent on wiping out consciousness instead of having emotional import; it’s like a passionless solution to a problem. I think that speaks to a great difference in the times. There are more wonderful examples in the Rutherford blog, and I urge a close reading.

I believe we owe something to future generations. For them, I think we should endeavor to be “useful in time.”

Purple flowers.

One of the 300 or so pictures I took the other day. I think this one is pretty and would do well to go forward in time.


  1. Im’ sure I don’t have the answer. I do understand the problem. The snapshots that fill my many albums are fading. The photos on slides and the 8mm. movies I paid to have transfered to DVDs. But will someone someday have to put them on something else?? Just like my record collection,78’s 45’s. Oh and how about those cassettes.
    Shit happens……………

  2. Yes I do agree. I am such a packrat and have many momentos, journals, precious artwork of a talented 3 year old, Photo albums, a frmed piece of artwork from each of my children. I am overwhelmed at times with stuff. At least my photography seems to be managable at least for now. Two new 2 terabyte harddrives for back up. My personal computer guru told me I’d never fill up my little 500MB passport. Yes, I do believe you photo and words are worthy of saving. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Well put, Bill, and thank you for quoting my thoughts as well. I have FINALLY found a few moments to read this work.
    While studying conservation methods in years gone by, the digital age was just coming upon us. The CD was a new venture none of us could yet afford to purchase or imagine ourselves using on a daily basis. At that time (somewhere back in the mid 1980’s) archivists were stating that data storage/enjoyment methods changed every ten years and that information doubled approximately every one and a half years. Some of the top conservators under which I studied claimed that by the year 2000 information would double approximately every 45 minutes. !!!!!!!! This was unthinkable but seems, today, certainly plausible.
    Joe Albert has a valid thought in these responses to which I would like to add my experienced two cents. IF at ANY time you transfer images or information to another, newer format, by all means KEEP THE ORIGINALS! You cannot imagine how many times distortions (or poor quality) has resulted in the duplication process or, better yet, how many times it is possible to go back to the original format and produce original material from that source. Information often can, and should, be reproduced from the original source whenever possible.
    I shudder to think how many people threw out negatives, slides and movie films just because they had made a CD of the material in small images sizes only to learn later than these small images couldn’t be printed as 8×10’s or larger when they were needed. Going back to the original sources would have saved the day.
    I will soon be writing a very poignant post on my blog on this subject and thanks again, Bill, for all the good things about which you write.

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