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The Case of the Vanishing Records

I love a good second-hand book shop and on a recent family trip to the US I found an old American Heritage magazine known for writing on history, travel, food and culture of its time. The magazine Volume 20, Issue 5, dated August 1969 caught my attention being the month my husband was born and the fact that both will be 50 next year. Whilst this initial connection drew me to the magazine my interest increased stumbling across content that had an intriguing link to my professional life today in ‘The Case of the Vanishing Records’.

What could we learn from this piece that may be applicable to contemporary thinking in the retention of information and records today. Have we learnt from our mistakes or is history simply repeating itself? The writer describes the many failures and loss of records due predominantly to degradation of the record material or media (i.e. Paper or film). Letters that crumble, photographs that spontaneously combust and films that corrode through chemical reactions feature throughout with a synopsis of cause and effect to support learning with intent to retain records for the long term.

Ironically it was often the advancements in the paper and film industries that created products that would become commercially available to all but with a quality that would come into question over time. At that moment in time the writer contends that in some cases the book was disappearing, and it was, literally. In contrast today whilst the book is still disappearing physically, paper is being replaced by digital media at a rapid rate to provide electronic access. But has this digital media provided any more stability to the record than its paper counterpart? Are we any closer to saving the record or are we further away? In a world where we are creating more information than ever before how can we pick the flowers from the weeds and save what is important to us both personally and professionally. David G Lowe’s thoughts from 1969 are just as relevant today as they were then.

“There are many things recorded on both paper and film which are not worth saving. But who is to make the awesome decision about what is to be saved and what is not? Who is to say what will be important tomorrow? Who is to say which crumbling book or magazine or letter might hold the key to our understanding of some phase of our past? It would be a brave man indeed who would venture an opinion”.

How many of both our business and private records have or will become lost on obsolete digital media? In a society that is always looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest in technology we remain at risk of losing the records that snapshot our story. Yesterday’s chemical reaction to physical media may be compared to today’s upgrade of digital technology where we lose our ability to physically view the information due to technological progress. Somehow, I suspect the Case of the Vanishing Records will never be solved.

I was so pleased to learn on returning home that American Heritage appears to have secured much of its content digitally online where you can read the complete article below:


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