I am eating a sandwich at the end of Pier 14 in San Francisco. The sun has set behind the downtown skyscrapers, and the colors in the sky are slowly fading to grey. I’m not the only diner out here. Pelicans soar close off the pier, about 100 feet above the water, and one by one dive straight down with a loud splash, resurfacing in a moment, ruffling their feathers and jerking their beaks to get down the fish they’ve caught. Other splashes in the water come from seals surfacing for air. As an orange-tinted full moon comes up over the East Bay hills and under the span of the Bay Bridge, I see a pair of seals surface side by side, with their mouths meeting as they float at the water’s surface for a few seconds. I am delighted to see all this, so different from what I usually see at home, and at the same time I wish I could be back there with the people I love instead of alone here.
I don’t have a camera right now, or anything to draw with, so I can only record this scene in words and in memory. When there was still sun shining low on Yerba Buena Island and the coastline to the east, there were several people out here with tripods and light umbrellas, photographing human couples standing against the pier railings, in each other’s arms. Judging from the clothing and the poses, I suspect these shots are for wedding or engagement albums. And I can understand the motivation. When Mary and I were married, 14 years ago this month, we too had pictures taken of us against a striking background, in our case the bright orange and yellow trees of a Pennsylvania fall. I see one of those pictures every time I return home. Remember this, the picture says, and it brings back memories of the vows we made to each other that day. The words we said, and the way we looked when we said them, were not recorded in fixed form, but, God willing, will stay in our hearts as long as we live.
There are more memories recorded out on the pier. Plaques along the rails quote lines of poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Thomas Lovell Beddoes about the bay I’m looking out on. Ceramic tile art depicts boats that have plied its waters, from the early days of European exploration to the present. A display on the sidewalk in front relates the history of the pier, the ferries that ran (and still run, in smaller numbers) from the terminal nearby, the freeway that was built and then removed again from the water’s edge, and some of the people who played a part in all of these developments. Remember this, they say, and I bring bits back with me to record in words.
It’s a basic need that we have, as intelligent, reflective, and social creatures, to remember the things we’ve experienced, seen, and learned about. We make records of these things in various forms, to help us remember, and to prompt others to remember as well. They help us go beyond and above what’s immediately in front of us, telling us things we need to know, people we can relate to, pasts that were different, futures that can be better.
Technology can make it easier for us to record these things– and sometimes easier to lose them. We took many pictures of our kids on digital cameras as they grew up, and kept hundreds of them on my laptop, which let me easily recall them and show them to friends and family when I traveled. Then one day I was robbed of my laptop, without my having backed up my photo collection, and most of those pictures were lost. I’ve also seen many other personal and family memoirs posted on the Web, stay for a few years, and then vanish with the demise of the web site they were on. I kept paper tapes of early BASIC programs I wrote in middle school for years after I had access to any device that could read them. They’re gone now; I presume they were thrown out when my parents cleaned house sometime after I left home.
I know better now how to keep what remains. Apple’s Time Machine makes it easy for me to incrementally back up my laptop every time I come home from work and plug a cheap external drive into my USB port. The pictures of my kids that survived the laptop theft were mostly the ones that I had shared with others (either by copying them onto prints, or by putting them up on the Web). And the older family pictures that are most meaningful to us are ones where we know what the pictures represent, either because we are in them, or because others have told us, in person or in writing, who is in the pictures and the context in which they were taken.
I am here in San Francisco for Ipres 2009, a conference promoting the preservation of digital content. There are a lot of smart, dedicated people scheduled to speak, and I hope to learn about new technologies and methods to help us preserve the content we want our libraries and their users to remember.
While some of these techniques may be complex, many of them are essentially elaborations on basic principles I’ve touched on in what I’ve related above: Help people record what’s important to them. Make it easy for them to preserve these records in their everyday activity. Encourage them to copy and share what they record, and allow others to build on them. Make what they record easy to interpret, through informative description and straightforward formats. And finally, try to understand and appreciate the connection between the record and the people for whom the record is important.
Which is why I sit now with my laptop in my hotel room, looking out on a bay that is now as dark as the night sky overhead, and trying to connect my experiences with the preservation challenges and proposals to come. Remember this, I mean to say. It’s important.