The pace of change is immense. Knowledge sources for previous generations, such as libraries and published physical reference books, are long gone. Online dictionaries, Wikipedia, YouTube and other repositories unlock immense riches for those people able to put an online search engine to work to satisfy their curiosity.
Accessibility of online data has changed too. Personal computer usage is in rapid decline globally as personal, portable devices accompany people everywhere they go.
Access to knowledge is ubiquitous and, apart from the cost of a device and web access, free.
Despite the on-lining of everything capable of digital capture, I think there are still some major gaps to fill. The biggest of these is about people, collectively and individually, and what these people do, think and believe. In other words, a social commentary and history about what defines us and directs us.
Over the past five years I have had a family tree project on the boil. I’ve learned heaps about my relatives past and present, but mostly those past. Keeping tabs on living relatives is an immense task.
But beyond the stretch of human memory, information other than Stud Book records outlining people’s names and vital dates fast evaporates. For example I’d love to know why my ancestors vacated hearth and home in the British Isles and made a journey to settle on the other side of the Earth. I’d love to know why my great grandparents settled in Stratford at the end of the 19th century when it would have been little more than a frontier hick-town. I’d love to know how my great grandfather came to be a Sangster.
Reviewing records over the past 150 or so years, it’s possible to find out where people lived and what their occupation was, but little else. There’s the occasional moment when old family photos are found. There may be scribblings on the back saying who or what may have been featured in the image on the front. Sometimes not. Photos are often quite personal and people don’t formally note anything about the contents because they don’t need to – they know that photo’s story. However that knowledge is often lost when the photo’s owner passes.
Thousands of photos each year will be destroyed because they take up space and nobody knows why they may have been important and kept in the first place. The same applies to other memorabilia. The only stuff that tends to be kept is that which is believed to have a tangible value, like jewellery, bone china, original artworks and so on.
Families aren’t the only ones struggling with this. Public libraries and museums around the world have similar issues. Theirs are often complicated by the fact that many of the historic images they have are on perishable materials, like acetate film or glass plates. Even modern film stock won’t last forever, particularly if it is regularly accessed or used in some sort of machinery, like a projector, for instance. Sticky fingerprints take a toll of many things humans interact with, particularly our history. All of this builds a strong case for digitising this information.
I don’t think that understanding history will ever change human behaviours, but that’s another story entirely. But I believe it can significantly influence our knowledge and understanding about who we are, and why we may be where we are doing what we do.
Families have their own records. Many of these are verbal and tactile – family legends, a grandmother’s cheese scones, another’s knitting, an uncle’s record collection, a big brother’s first car, the drought of 1972. I believe that is these stories and impressions of the circumstances around them that shape us more than what we learn at school or on business development courses, or from empirical data found in the Edmonds Cook Book or weather records.
Regrettably this knowledge lives largely in people’s heads and is never formally captured as part of a family’s or community’s social history. I think that we’re the poorer for that.
Yet this week I discovered and have been excited by a tool that can help provide a social history around historic photographs and images. Some libraries and museums are already using it. It’s a New Zealand-developed piece of kit called Recollect. There’s a demo site at http://demo.recollect.co.nz that gives an idea of what this is about and what it can do. Please go and have a look, if you’re that way inclined.