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Matinee: 'Preserving Memories, Preserving Files' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

21 November 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 112th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Preserving Family Memories and Preserving Personal Digital Files.

Now why would we subject you to a long 44 minute production like this just when you're about to spend the holiday with family?

Yes, precisely because you're about to spend the holiday with family. You're welcome.

We know how important it can be under the circumstances to have a little time alone courtesy of an excellent excuse. The trouble is that an excellent excuse is hard to come up with.

But could there be a more excellent excuse than this Saturday matinee? After all, it's about preserving family memories. Both the ones on paper and the digitized ones.

Everybody wants to be preserved. Take our word for it.

This piece is one of several presentations by the U.S. National Archives on its work. In this video, we get two complementary lectures:

  • Preserving Family Memories by Catherine Nicholson, retired Deputy Director, Document Conservation Division at 1:16.
  • Preserving Personal Digital Files by Greg Pomicter, Director, Field Management Support Division at 22:30.

And actually it isn't very long. More like two TED talks.


Never mind about the code books she mentions at the beginning. Nicholson is referring to a previous presentation.

Start paying attention when she lists a few basic but important lessons the profession has learned about preserving things that also apply to your own family jewels:

  • Good environment (low humidity, cool temperatures)
  • Non-damaging storage materials (and cleaning supplies)
  • Careful handling (hands off)
  • Limited display (beware sunlight)
  • Use your nose (it knows when things are going wrong)

She elaborates on those points in memorable ways that we'll leave for you to enjoy during her talk. Good thing we weren't in the audience, though. We'd have been giving her a standing ovation for every point she made.

We liked the suggestion of preserving newspaper clippings, which were never meant to be long for this world, by making photocopies. Of course, a scan does the job too.

Around the 11 minute mark she talks about photographs. It's a discouraging situation. Cool storage is one of the few tools you have for color preservation. But this is where she mentions the importance of scanning the originals.

She continues with recommendations for storing photographs, listing the safe products and the ones to avoid (which you can smell). She recommends polyester L sleeves for keeping fingerprints off prints.

She talks about the difference between good and bad photo albums and how to avoid adhesives all together.

To extend their lifetime, you should keep your photographs in storage rather than display them. You just don't notice when damage to displayed photos is occurring.

But that doesn't mean you can't look at your photos. She suggests making digital copies (several ways) and displaying those while protecting the originals in storage.

She also suggests using Photo Corners, which we can't argue with.

She ends by referring to some preservation and conservation services which can advise you about and even help restore your originals.


Pomicter begins with an inventory of his own family's 100-year records including movies from the 1930s. He does what Nicholson advises. So he has a lot of boxes of original records. And he worries about them.

It's not just the boxes, though. They will, over time, inevitably become dispersed (not to mention possibly destroyed by fire, flood, etc.). So he became interested in electronic records.

He covers three subjects:

  • How electronic records aid in preserving family history
  • How to use one version of an electronic record family file system
  • The advantages and challenges in creating and maintaining file systems

He distinguishes between the paper and physical artifacts (like trophies) of the past and the electronic records (like email) of today. No memory is left behind, he says.

His discussion of creating a system of folders is what we've long advocated. Use the operating system to create a folder system that is self-indexing. He can find anything in less than 40 seconds, he says.

This is something everybody has a lot of trouble with, frankly. So it's valuable to see something in action that actually works.

Making copies keeps ahead of inevitable deterioration. So don't just burn DVDs. Burn fresh copies every few years. Move them to new media.

And store them all over. Give copies to your kids. Disseminate.

Physical deterioration is one thing but software isn't permanent either. It may not be updated when your operating system is. Which actually happened to Pomicter. He lists the formats he feels are going to be around for a while.


After a brief raffle, there are some questions from the audience. Good questions (we won't spoil it for you).

Except to underline how big a job it is to digitize your family history (which can be considered another excellent excuse to slip away from them). "You may never be finished," Pomicter admits.

Which is as near to perpetual motion and immortality as a person can expect to get.

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