How will the ‘Digital Age’ affect future perceptions of the now?

9 November 2017

My experiences so far working at the EAC have led me to examine an array of fascinating stories detailing the lives of families and individuals living and working abroad. A large proportion of these stories come from handwritten diaries, photographs, and written correspondence, produced before the boom of the digital age. This led me to think about how archivists in the future will look back at our time through our eyes. I question whether the loss of this older form of diary-keeping and correspondence to the new digital replacements such Twitter and Facebook will distort the true vision of our time for those looking back from the future.

An example of the type of collections that I’ve been working with, which perfectly encapsulates a piece of history through the record producer’s eyes, is the personal accounts of life during the Second World War of a husband and wife. The wife writes of life under German occupation in the Netherlands through personal letters, whilst the husband details his life whilst imprisoned in a Japanese P.O.W. camp through an extensive personal diary compiled upon his release and freedom. Together these two personal accounts of history serve as hugely significant and useful evidence for historians looking at these aspects of the Second World War. Without them we may have never known what life was truly like within this particular P.O.W. camp, or how the German invasion of the Netherlands affected the mentalities of persons living in that specific area of the country.

Personal diaries, journals and correspondence, which were for many years by far the most popular ways for individuals to document their own lives, are what most archives are built on. The rise of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have largely replaced these methods of personal documentation. It is only natural to wonder how this transition will transform archives. Yes, it is true that these developments bring forward advantages, such as increased documentation of personal lives. However, they will simultaneously force a certain loss of useful information through their informality and high frequency. Most users of social media are not even aware that they are producing their own personal archival collection. Individuals do not consider what they are posting in ‘tweets’ and Facebook posts as much as they would when formulating a diary entry. The same is true for daily correspondence; personally written letters, which in the past have provided archivists and historians with a goldmine of information, were carefully formulated and thought-out pieces of work. The same cannot be said for most correspondence written and sent within Facebook or Twitter’s ‘Direct Message’ feature. The question, then, is whether we should value quantity over quality.

I can only wonder how my perception of the stories told by this husband and wife would have drastically altered if they were represented in the form of social media. Perhaps this is in part due to my own biases rather than the form that the records take. In any case, the developments of the ‘digital age’ have posed new questions to both historians and archivists, necessitating change in our perceptions and biases.

If there is one lesson to be learnt from this, it is that we must truly appreciate the opportunity to work with these physical pieces of history, which to the individuals that produced them may symbolize their entire world.

Written by Alex (Intern at the EAC from October 2017 to April 2018)

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