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Getting Past the Sentiment: Archiving Our Lives

In the course of recent spring cleaning, my husband came across home videos taken when our children were very young.  We actually still have a VCR hooked up to our TV, so we watched them, much to the amusement of our now young-adult offspring.

When I relayed the story to people, the response was interesting, but not in the way you might expect. It was all about archival integrity, not sentiment. One person said I should get the tapes converted to digital format for safe-keeping. Someone else wondered “whether personal and social records will stand the test of time now that they are not physical. Will photos and videos stored electronically last for a century or more, as paintings, printed photos and cine-film have?”

Both points are well taken. You probably know people who have lost precious memorabilia in both physical and virtual formats – to fire, flood, hard-drive failure, and so on. You may well have experienced these things yourself. Either way, safeguarding memories is big business, and businesses have an opportunity to accommodate people’s archival needs, whatever they may be.

Cloud computing offered by the likes of amazon.com has addressed the issue of digital safe-keeping to some extent, as have services like Dropbox, automatic back-up systems, and so on. Fireproof containers, plastic bins and the like can keep hard-copy documents safe from fire, water, mice and other hazards. Yet keeping things safe is only half the task. Fifty-nine percent of global consumers say they are always concerned with their safety and security, according to the Roper Reports® Worldwide 2012 25-country study. But even more, 65%, are always looking for ways to make their lives simpler. About half, 48%, agree with both statements.

In other words, people don’t merely want their memories to be safe. They want them to be manageable and accessible, and they don’t necessarily want to work too hard at getting them that way. This is where digitized content would appear to have an advantage, because it can be organized any which way. But it also runs the risk of getting out of hand because it is too easy to keep everything. One of the challenges digital storage services face is the extent to which they balance people’s desire to protect their ephemerae with their desire for curation.

Some might say that the real question is not how to save things, but why bother? Roper Reports US research finds that 53% of Americans strongly agree that people share too much private information on social networking sites, up from 39% three years ago. Yet the infinite and infinitely boring minutiae recorded on such sites indicate that many of us hold out the fantasy that others are endlessly fascinated with our lives – or that someone a hundred years from now will be.

In the end, what people choose to save for posterity is their personal business. Business’s response should be like the one I got about my old home videos – practical, not sentimental.

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