Preserving Memories in the Digital Age, or what to do with that Digital Photo

1 Feb

Hurricane destruction

With the rapid development of technology, digital history web sites that may have earlier been new and exciting are now becoming standard.  Though created in 2005 and not the most radically new in terms of digital form, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank was still a novel idea to me. Created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the University of New Orleans, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank collects recollections and media related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  This web site capitalizes on technological capabilities to provide a new look at capturing memories in the digital age.

Public historians have long collected memories through archives and oral histories, but it was still surprising for me to reconsider this aspect of public history work.  Normally I think of public historians using already-collected sources, and certainly on much more removed events than Hurricane Katrina. The recency of this material reminds public historians that the present also quickly becomes the past, and public historians can work across both lines.  With the ability to quickly post content online, documenting current events is even easier today.

For those wishing to submit content to the Memory Bank, they are prompted to not only enter personal information and their story, image, or audio, but also map the source of their item and tag it.  This sort of mapping and tagging is, to my knowledge, not used in regular archives.  But on this site, the archives are more easily organized, textually, thematically, and spatially.[1]

The Memory Bank is a mix of user-contributed items and links to other collections.  What’s unique about these items is that they’re primarily born-digital, meaning they were created digitally.  This is especially clear for items like photographs.  Uploaded photos are a wide range of quality and content.  Some may never be printed, but only exist digitally, and this web site is a way to preserve them.  Digital history causes a rethinking of archives in this way; instead of printing everything out on paper, what if objects only existed online and in hard drives?  Could sites like this be a permanent way to store items, especially digital items?  And do we really need to save every digital photo?

An online interface also allows for a variety of media.  Not only are there stories and photographs, but audio and video content, which can be easily accessed on a computer.  Here is an example of how text, video, tagging, and mapping combine.[2]

I also think one underlying theme of this site is shared authority.  At some point last semester, I read an article that mentioned how most people don’t see the value in their own memories; they feel like they’re not important enough to share (can anyone help me out with what article this was?)  Sites like this demonstrate to people that their memories are valued and empower them to share them.  Historians will always need sources, and public historians can work with the public to collect memories about not only far off events, but also recent events like Hurricane Katrina.

While this site remains primarily as an archive, it would be interesting to see its material used in various projects or exhibits.  There is no interpretive aspect to the site, and while that is not its purpose, I think it can spark new ideas for incorporating various media and user-generated content into other public history work.

For those who are interested in this type of site, I should also mention the predecessor to this project, the 9/11 Digital Archive.  There is also an article here which details the establishment of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and challenges that the creators faced, as well as lessons learned.[3]


[1] Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, “Add to Memory Bank,” http://www.hurricanearchive.org/contribution (accessed February 1, 2013).

[2] Michael Mizell-Nelson, “NWT-Greta\’s House.mp4,” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, http://www.hurricanearchive.org/items/show/26020 (accessed February 1, 2013).

[3] Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47 (accessed February 1, 2013).

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5 Responses to “Preserving Memories in the Digital Age, or what to do with that Digital Photo”

  1. Nick Sacco February 1, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your essay, Elena. Your explanation of “born-digital” digital content was good and something I haven’t really thought about before. On a regular basis I take pictures of various things on my phone, which I post online and save on my computer. I then delete the pictures from my phone so that I have space for more in the future. These pictures are almost never printed. I’ve often thought about whether or not this method is the best way of preserving my memories. What happens if my computer dies? What if one the websites where I post my pictures crashes? The picture could be gone forever. In my opinion the Digital preservation of photographs can be rather dangerous if we are not careful.

    I think the article you may be thinking about is the introduction to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s book “The Presence of the Past.”

    • Elena February 4, 2013 at 2:56 am #

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, I do wonder what sort of future forms digital back-up will take – could anything digital ever be truly deleted?
      I also think that born-digital objects can also present a problem because of their overabundance. Not only do we have to find ways to store them, but also decide what’s important to keep.
      I did look up “Presence of the Past” but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind, unless my memory was false. It seems to suggest that many people value family memories, though these often stay within families.

  2. Elena February 1, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Reblogged this on Musings on History.

    • Tim Rainesalo February 4, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      I found this article very interesting for some of the same reasons Nick did. Digitization may allow us to store more objects in a smaller space, but relying too heavily on this technology can be a real pitfall. Even now, computers and servers are still prone to crashing, as last night’s Super Bowl electrical mishap showed us. I particularly liked your comment about digital history’s potential to overcome traditional blockades of historical recency; it’s easy for us to think of the past in terms of dusty books and smelly scrolls.

      It also touches on another strength of digital history; specialization. We might not remember where we were when we heard about Hurricane Katrina, but the residents of devastated towns certainly do. With digital history, we are free to create shrines of memory for events of personal or local significance and I think that is a wonderful thing.

      • Elena February 4, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

        Thanks Tim. I hadn’t thought about it before, but that’s a really interesting idea to also think of digital memorials. I think that real life memorials are definitely places that can spark reflection, and while reflections are not quite the same as testimonials about an event like you might see in an archive, it would be interesting to have digital memorials where anyone, whether they directly experienced the event or not, could comment.

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