Years ago, I happened onto a cache of black-and-white 8×10 photographs capturing the business district in the small town where I once lived. The photos, taken perhaps 40 years earlier, were fascinating. They showed businesses long since gone, deep awnings blocking morning sun, vintage cars, and placards announcing brand names and prices.
Using a magnifying glass, I pored over details in every photo. I saw intact buildings that had not yet been subdivided. I saw architectural details since removed in an effort to modernize. I saw a rather bare courtyard compared to the shaded one I knew.
It dawned on me that I’d never seen similar photos from subsequent eras. At that moment, I began to sense what had quietly disappeared. In the future, who would know or remember what had been there?
Cell phones with built-in cameras exacerbate the problem. Prints are a thing of the past. When their elders pass, young people today have little interest in another generation’s household goods. It’s a safe bet that if grandma’s china, mom’s silver and granddad’s arrowhead collection don’t merit a second look, no one is going to go through photos on my old cell phone or check out my cloud storage.
And it’s not just photos lost to time. Letters and notes have gone the way of the dinosaur. Few go to the trouble of printing or archiving old emails. If you’ve been accused of criminal behavior, your text messages can be exhumed. Otherwise, most will never again see the light of day.
When efficiency experts predicted paperless homes and offices, we all laughed. But today, the paper that endures is hardly the stuff of historians’ dreams. It is the flotsam and jetsam of bills, direct mail catalogs and promotional pieces.
I think of 100-year-old photos of new steam engines or combines, of humble abodes on the prairie flanked by little more than a windmill. The photos invariably included the entire family, generally clad in their Sunday best (even if the children were barefoot). From those photos, we learn of the impact of evolving technology, shared commitment and relentless labor. What will future generations learn of us?
Go ahead. Get some photos printed; write a letter to the future. Give tomorrow’s historians something to work with. Preserving a record of your life and times is every bit as important as preserving old iron!