Skip to main content

The other day, I had trouble accessing Photoshop through our home network. The program itself was on my other computer so I had to whip downstairs to see what was the problem.

I discovered that my back-up computer was in pieces. My 18-year-old had pulled its hard-drive apart, no doubt for some mischievous reason, and left the cannibalized carcass to air in the middle of the room.

When I asked "What's up?" he said he needed a component to be able to play a computer game in his room with his friends -- and some other people in Japan.

Of course, my son has the most advanced computer in the house, by far. My son also visits all the usual websites so popular with teens and gets a lot of viruses on his computer. So he is always "wiping his hard drive" as he puts it.

I know because he and his dad like to discuss such things. (That's definitely a good thing.) I seldom butt in on these conversations, but the other day I overheard a remark that distressed me. My son was oh-so-casually explaining to my husband how he had inadvertently erased all his photographs from his Grade 11 trip to Europe. Evaporated into the ether. All gone. Not to worry, he said, "lots of other kids still have theirs."

Now, he had taken hundreds of pictures of Baroque fountains and messy hotel rooms and bleary-eyed teens -- and shown me the snapshots just once upon his return. I had intended to print out the best ones and mail them to his grandmother. Now she will never see that picture of her grandson Mark with that "gladiator" in front of the Roman Coliseum, the one I call "Marcus Inebreius."

Yes, it's 2006. Digital technology makes it all just so easy. We can instantly capture our most intimate and spontaneous moments and effortlessly pass these images on to friends and family by e-mail or snail mail or post them on web sites for all the wired world to see. And, still, my son's record of his once-in-a-lifetime experience is lost forever.

I have a different perspective on things: About two years ago, I found some old letters written by my husband's ancestors from Richmond, Que., in a trunk in my father-in-law's basement.

Hundreds of letters, dating as far back as 1874. Other kinds of paper documents, too: a direct-mail ad for Crisco Shortening from 1915, when butter was getting costly: "Do you feel that breakfast seems incomplete without a hot bread of some sort?"

A Na-Dr-Co (National Drug Company) promotional brochure from census year 1911 with 1901 census data and ads for bizarre remedies such as sarspadilla, sabadilla, white liniment for ailments like "brain worry" and "fag" (what we might refer to as chronic-fatigue) and impotency.

A flyer for the American Presbyterian Church in Old Montreal from 1880, as crisp and clean as the day it was printed.

Family documents, too: Great Uncle Herb's Temperance Pledge. (The letters reveal he was always in debt so it is likely didn't adhere.)

A newspaper clipping describing British militant suffragette Barbara Wylie's arrival in Montreal in 1912. (Reporters couldn't believe how attractive a feminist could be!)

And booklets containing household accounts for the entire Laurier era (these were Scots, after all). 1883: Love and marriage, $5 for a lady's ring and 50 cents for a frying pan; 1884, baby arrives, toy 5 cents, blocks 10 cents, doctor's bill $51! In 1896, a house is built in pseudo-Scottish Baronial style for $2,712: $100 for bricks and $89 for nails.

Family expenses for the era averaged between $300 and $500 a year: Wood for heating and dentist and medical bills (outside of childbirth) were the big expenses. Masonic dues could be considerable, too.

Meat was cheap (pork was 13 cents a pound) but flour expensive (at $3 to $4 a barrel).

We're talking a lot of Canadiana here, of interest to family, as well as to historians. I posted my findings on the Web and it has been very well received by the academic community and educators. Some scholars have actually thanked me for making the effort. It was just luck, I tell them. Just luck that I one day while waiting for the washing machine to end its spin cycle, my gaze rested on an old Victorian trunk in a basement where I'd been hundreds of times before, and I got curious.

But will future amateur historians be as lucky as I was?

With all the runaway digital documentation going on in homes today, will today's family history be available or accessible to future inquiring minds like mine? I mean, new platforms are arising every month; we just recently transferred our baby-videos to CD but it's possible that in a few years the CD format will be as impenetrable as a cuneiform tablet. My son's experience with his high-school pictures suggests that a lot of 21st family history could be, well, gone with the Windows.

And that will indeed be ironic -- and a great big shame.

Dorothy Nixon lives in Hudson, Que.