By Dan Back
The most prized possessions of any historical society or museum are documents and photographs.
A researcher can use newspaper articles, letters, post cards, photographs, journals, business ledgers and court records to create a picture of what life was like at a specific point in time.
I have been working with historical societies for more than 20 years. In that time I have noticed that historical documentation is declining.
This started in the 1970s and has continued each year since then.
The Switzerland County Historical Society, for example, has significantly more documentation of the 1880s and 1890s than the 1980s and 1990s. Recorded history of 2000-2010 is almost nonexistent.
To what do we owe this loss of recorded history? The answer is the thing that was expected to save history forever: the digital age.
Let’s take a look at what is happening to recorded history.
Newspapers are suffering today because news is delivered via the Internet and cell phones. This is great for instant news, but it does nothing to preserve news for historical purposes.
A newspaper has births, deaths, local news and event coverage at a level you will never find on the Internet.
If you are a regular reader of the “Reflections of The Past” section of the Vevay newspapers, you know there is more detailed information about 150 years ago than 10 years ago. If you wanted to know a list of Switzerland County businesses from 1970, where would you find this on the Internet?
Before the introduction of email, cell phones, texting, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, people wrote letters to each other.
Email and texting are the written letter of today.
Digital media provide instant communication, but they often are nearly instantly gone. (The exception to that rule is when you post or send something you regret. Then it likely will take on a life of its own.)
In the past many people kept journals documenting their days. These journals provide tremendous insight into what was going on during those periods in time. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are the journals of today.
Unfortunately they are mostly available for viewing only temporarily.
The digitizing of legal documents has resulted in a tremendous loss of recorded history. The old ledgers, bills and receipts contained a wealth of handwritten information above and beyond the basic data needed.
The digital age has given us amazing opportunities to document and capture our world. The problem is it is instantly captured but just as instantly gone.
Our parents and grandparents passed their legacy to us through letters, photographs, diaries and family records. What will we pass on to our children?
Dan Black is a member of the Switzerland County (Ind.) Historical Society.