Someone brought a little bundle to our local history department today and asked them if they were interested. Inside a small box was a stack of glass plate photographic negatives carefully packed with pieces of century-old newspapers! The negatives, I was told, were in very good condition. They will be digitally scanned and added to our online local history collection for the world to see.
Which reminded me of an old concern I share with an all-too-small group of people… what will become of our visual history? I've worked with old glass plates having made contact prints from them. I've worked with old black and white film; it's perfectly usable for decades (at least) after being properly processed. The old black and white prints hold up well, too. Check any good antique shop and it's pretty likely you'll see at least a few photographs that crossed the century line a while back. Color negatives and prints? Well, not as stable, but good for a while.
My big worry concerns digital imaging. I've fully embraced it myself. Now that I have a respectable single-lens reflex (and a couple of all-in-ones) I can make photos to my heart's content and not worry about the cost of film, processing, printing, or even the water pollution caused by those activities. I shoot the way I did when I was a pro: lots of shots, only selected prints though these days almost nothing of mine actually sees physical media… it's "printed" by being published online. Thinking about the future, the way I and we use and save our images isn't good.
What will happen when your family "album" or those photos of your house, car, city, so carefully stored on your C: drive, or diskettes, or in your blog get left behind as you experience your mortality? Will they turn up a century from now at your historical society or in an antique shop, wrapped in an old newspaper? Will historians dig them out of your basement unearthed, in the year 2200 following demolition of an unneeded parking lot? My fear is that, no, there will be few visual traces left of the sort that will tell future Earthlings about how we looked, lived, loved, worked, and played. All those lovely zeros and ones will have fizzled off into the cosmic background and the blogs deleted. CD-ROMs, DVDs, hard drives will be broken, digital formats forgotten and unreadable. Do you still have an 8mm projector that you can use to watch grandpa's or great grandpa's home movies?
Best to continue to make the best and most archival prints of your photographic memories that you can and keep them in a nice photo album. Do it for yourself, for your descendants, and for history. Those crazy scrap bookers may be on to something!