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The most photographed and the least documented – Collecting photographs

May 11, 2017

I have two wonderful daughters. One of them has always been camera shy and the other one has never seen a camera she hasn’t smiled at. She has hundreds of pictures of her and her friends on her phone and posted in her various social media accounts. And I can’t think of a single photo she’s taken that she has printed. So, the documentation of her high school years is taking place electronically and will probably never exist on a printed page. As someone who has worked in museums for a long time, I’m a bit bothered by that.

I understand that digital images are as real as printed ones. I know that we need to be better at creating and preserving digital information. But, as I learn more about digitization and preservation of electronic data, I’m also learning more about how tricky collecting electronic data can be. The storage technology we use is constantly changing. It can feel overwhelming to develop and implement plans for backing up files and migrating data. Just keeping up with changing terminology makes me tired sometimes. It’s a big task, and one with a great deal of potential and lots of opportunities we need to learn to embrace.

However, while we’re embracing the opportunities, we need to remember not to lose sight of the less tech-heavy things we can do to document what’s happening today. More and more folks will be asking us if they can donate their electronic files and born-digital images. We need to start talking about and developing plans for what we’re going to do and how we’re going to answer their questions. We also need to think about how we’re going to integrate modern technology and the advantages it has with our older methods of documenting and preserving history.

Consider a two-pronged approach. Have a strategy for capturing, preserving and migrating digital data. Along with that strategy, develop a procedure for looking through the information and choosing some representative examples and print them in a way that preserves some of the data in hard copy. I wish that I had a great bullet-pointed list to share, but I don’t. I think that we’re in the middle of a lot of conversations and thinking about how we preserve today’s digital history. I’d love to hear from folks about the topic. What are you doing? How are you doing it? What has worked for you? And what hasn’t?

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking at my kid’s photographs. Copying them into my own electronic files, printing them and putting them in albums (archivally safe, of course) whenever I find the time.


Tamara Hemmerlein is the Hoosier Heritage Alliance coordinator at IHS. She will be traveling all over Indiana to advocate for good collections stewardship. Tamara loves mashed potatoes and ice cream, but not together.

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