The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Forever and Ever and Ever and Ever
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how digital imaging continues to up the ante on what we expect or want from photography. Given all the images that are being posted, shared and archived online daily, I called Steve Hoffenberg, Director of Consumer Imaging Research at Lyra Research in Massachusetts, to chat about their spread and dematerialization. (To read an interesting piece Steve wrote about the digital revolution for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s project, click! photography changes everything, click here.) Basically, what I wanted to learn from Steve was whether people who seem to be taking more and more pictures were printing out fewer and fewer of them. The answer, in a word, is yes. While people taking pictures with digital cameras tended to print out about 15% of them, people who take pictures with cell or smart phones print out far less frequently, even as they archive massive numbers of images online. It’s now estimated that every month 3 billion new photographs get uploaded on Facebook alone. Image storage on such a massive scale—coming on top of recent media speculation that Facebook may be going public in the not-so-distant future—makes some people worry about the security and their eventual ability to access to pictures they’re warehousing on photo sites. The way consumers are dealing with the problem is, ironically, to go back to printing out and then archiving pictures as people traditionally have in the past—in object form as loose prints that get organized in scrapbooks and albums, or stuffed into bags or shoeboxes. According to Hoffenberg, research now shows that people most likely to make prints are, surprisingly, digital natives, and particularly young couples in their 20s, taking pictures of their kids, who don’t trust that the social media sites they use so heavily will still be in business a couple of years, let alone a couple of decades, down the road. So, I was interested to come across an Associated Press article in early January reporting on a new service launched by a parent wanting to insure that the pictures he was taking of his daughter would be around and available when she grew up. “People definitely have a false sense of security,” said Kai Pommerenke, an economist who founded Chronicle of Life in 2009. “Digital data is fragile,” he’s said. “You have to do something active in order to preserve it.” As professionals know all too well, and consumers are coming to realize, saving digital imagery requires constant diligence to keep up with technology and keep data loss at bay. Chronicle of Life, a 501C-3 not-for-profit, maintains that it will provide as high a level of attention and care to clients’ personal digital files as major institutions already give to their own data. The service backs content up on servers in the U.S. and in Ireland. Regular software checks are designed to prevent file corruption. And as file formats, like JPEGs, become obsolete, Chronicle of Life promises to convert the uploaded files entrusted to them to whatever the new standard may become. Forever. What’s the price tag for digital perpetual care? More than you’d expect, especially if you’re looking for all-purpose backup or make and save lots of pictures. According to the service’s website, three-quarter of monies collected are earmarked to build an endowment so the Chronicle of Life will be self-sustaining. The bulk of what’s left is budgeted to hire staff to oversee, monitor, and manage the data in years to come. Does that sound reassuring? That depends on how trusting you are or how proactive you’re willing to be to insure that documents of time-gone-by remain viewable in the future.