Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Preservation · Technology

What Happens to History When the Paper Trail Disappears?

The past on paper
The past on paper

This is a question that keeps coming to mind as I do the research for the book I’m writing —a sequel to An Old Merchant’s House, published last year. That book covered domestic life in the 19th century home, now known as the Merchant’s House Museum. The work in progress is about how that house was saved for posterity as a museum. It begins in 1933 with the death of the last surviving family member and continues through the restoration of the 1970s. I think I’ll call it “Miracle on Fourth Street,” for the more I learn, the more it seems that’s what it was.

My source material resides in three steel filing cabinets filled with paper records: correspondence, minutes, progress reports, memos, a daily work log, grant proposals, canceled checks, to-do lists, press releases, envelopes with dated cancellation stamps. Beginning in the thirties, most of the records are carbon copies on yellow (and yellowing) “second sheets.” Those eventually give way to photocopies, and from the beginning there are also handwritten records, rough drafts, telephone messages, and “memos to self.”

Some of these records are 80 years old. In 2093, 80 years from now, there is a good chance they will still be available because when they are archived (and they will be), copies will be made on archival-quality paper, paper being the operative word. When information is committed to paper, it is essentially forever. Sure, paper disintegrates, but before it does, one can make another paper copy, which will last another hundred plus years. So unless someone decides to throw paper records away or there is a destructive flood or fire, the past recorded there will be accessible as long as anyone wants to access it.

But what about the records being created today? Unless special measures are taken, digital records become inaccessible as technological advances make them obsolete. Now big brains are at work on figuring out the measures to take to preserve important institutional and governmental records by forwarding them to more recent platforms, and I would not venture a comment on this subject about which I know nothing.  However, such measures undoubtedly involve technological savvy, efffort and expense.

What I am concerned about are the records of the small fry— small businesses, clubs, local governments, charitable organizations, churches, museums, individuals. Today virtually everyone is communicating or keeping records electronically in one way or another.  Yet, in 80 years and God knows how many technological changes later, these records simply will not be available. Huge chunks of history will be lost—indeed have already been lost.

And what about our personal history? In our own family, we have precious photographs dating back to the 1890s  that connect us to those of us who went before. I think most people would say that in case of fire, they would sorely lament the loss of family photos. What about all those photos on our computers? Will they be accessible in 80 years? Maybe we should order some prints.

As of this writing, I am suspending the blog while I work on the book about the Merchant’s House. My last posting was a month ago, and I appropriated that one from the Landmarks Conservancy. Seems I am not at all good at multi-tasking, and I do want to finish the book before Christmas! So I’ll be back around the first of December. Thanks for listening!

5 thoughts on “What Happens to History When the Paper Trail Disappears?

  1. With more and more people turning to cloud storage and backup, there is a positive side effect: as long as these cloud services remain in business they will keep upgrading and updating their storage media — and, in effect, updating ours as well. This saves us the effort once required to transfer data from 5-inch floppies to 3-1/2-inch floppies to Syquest disks to Zip disk to hard drive to CD to DVD to BluRay, etc.

    What it doesn’t do is update the data format. I have files in proprietary formats that are unlikely to see anyone ever building a translator for (HB Engraver? InTouch? MusicPaint?). In 100 years, will JPEG still be a standard for image compression (will we even be compressing our images?)?


  2. See what I mean? You’ve already lost all that stuff on HB engraver, etc. and future generations will be the poorer for it!
    While governmental and big institutional files may be preserved, it’s the stuff of all the rest of us I’m concerned about. What are writers of historical fiction going to do? They’ll never know what daily life was really like in 2013.


  3. This is a perplexing issue. Don’t know what to think about it. Research is certainly going to be different. I guess email could be turned over to a library collection and photos. But then the libraries would have to have a way for the researcher to look at the stuff. How the world is changing!!!!


  4. Because there is still no foolproof way to archive information, this is a very perplexing issue indeed. In addition to the format obsolescence you mentioned, digital media is also susceptible to a lack of redundancy, hardware failure, human error, hacking, and — just like paper — fire and water.

    Anyone who has done genealogical research knows the frustration of the missing 1890 U.S. census. It was a paper-only archive housed in the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C that was lost to fire (and subsequent bungling by the U.S. congress) in 1921. Oddly enough, the causes are very similar to those listed above: improper storage, lack of redundancy, human error, fire and water. Here we are more than a hundred years later and we’re still facing the same problems!


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