A few weeks ago my Great Uncle Jack passed away aged 94. He was an amazing man who lived his life to the full right until the end. Uncle Jack was a businessman, a Rotarian, and a district councillor devoted to the Hexham area of Northumberland where he lived his entire life. He was a brilliant and accomplished engineer, and vice chairman of the Bullnose Morris Car Club, having renovated three vintage (1920s) cars from rusty carcasses to showroom condition. His crowning glory was a replica 1924 Morris Bus which he built from original parts (making those he couldn’t source). But it is Uncle Jack’s fondness for his local area and community that revealed his most important quality – that of an archivist.
Throughout Uncle Jack’s house were neat, organised piles of documents (including his bus company accounts from 1943) and stacks of photos. On the back of every single photo could be found hand written notes detailing the people, place and date. As a record of local and family history, it’s fascinating stuff.
But what would happen when I’m 94 and dead and buried? I will have taken many thousands of photos by then. Photos from my early life – the first thirty years – will be prints and slides that hopefully won’t have faded too much. But everything from then onwards will be digital – this could prove to be either an archivist’s dream or a nightmare.
Since March of this year, any photo I consider to be of interest to me, the outside world or my family and friends, has ended up on Flickr. The great thing about Flickr is that it encourages annotation – titles, tags and description, with a date and time attributed automatically. In the not too distant future latitude and longitude will also start appearing automatically as GPS gets built into more cameras. And then there’s the community aspects, particularly with groups and pools, adding a further wealth of information.
But what of my great nephew? In sixty years time, will he be able to browse through my photos as easily as I did my with Uncle Jack’s? I know it’s symptomatic of the web as a whole, but it seems to me that photo sharing websites like Flickr have an enormous responsibility to future generations. Centralised depositories such as these may actually be a our best bet for the future of everyday photos, as the portable storage media we use evolve and become defunct so rapidly – I know I’ve lost photos already.
What will happen to all our photos and data in the future? Flickr says it will never delete our photos but what happens if Yahoo! collapses – what would the administrators do with all those server hardware assets? Will the data still be around and accessible in 60 years time? 160 years time? 600 years time?