Needed: National Life’s Story Library

23Oct09

Dead men tell no tales.  But that’s not true if they leave behind a journal or other account of what they’ve experienced.

During their lifetimes, people accumulate a tremendous amount of information about themselves, the people around them, and current events.  This material is sometimes priceless, but often that’s not discovered until the person is gone or, while still living, forgets the important details or can no longer find the crucial documents or other data.  Sometimes the value of the material is monetary; sometimes it is intangible, as the images, experiences, and records associated with the person are lost or, nearly as bad, warehoused and forgotten.

These days, people do record much more data about themselves, voluntarily or otherwise, than ever before.  Even so, those data are commonly maintained in fragmented and fragile forms.  Some are deleted, sometimes mistakenly, by a mere click; some are lost as data standards change and hard drives crash.  Some are retained, but only in forms whose meanings or connections are difficult to guess.

People often value the thought that their legacy will live on – indeed, that the things they have done are already providing insight, entertainment, memories, assistance, or other benefits to those who remain.  In an era when people are cremated, or buried far away, or survived by no descendants, that legacy – the very memory of their existence – may often be best preserved online, where it may be preserved and may remain accessible indefinitely.

A library is perhaps the best place to store such materials.  Such an institution could provide stability and consistency in converting, formatting, backing up, and otherwise accumulating and preserving data in usable form.  Much of that work could be performed automatically, at relatively low cost.  Incoming material may consist primarily of data supplied in digital format , supplemented by scanning, photographing, logging, video- or audiotaping, and other data collection services provided by the library or by third-party contractors.

Perhaps the best way to encourage the accumulation of such data in that sort of library would be to give each library member his/her own account.  The member would be free to deposit a broad variety of materials through various media.  For example, in addition to a relatively secure deposit performed online, there may also be more secure ways to deliver the data physically (e.g., by USB jump drive carried directly to the library) for preparation and storage, or to grant access to such materials on the World Wide Web or only to users of computers, on the premises, that are not connected to the Web.  All such services and options may be supported by a sliding fee scale based upon income, degree of usage, or other commonly used guidelines.

The library could invite such deposits under a variety of arrangements.  Some people might wish to stipulate that they are using the library only for storage, during their lifetimes, and that they will state, in their last wills (which will not be read until after their deaths), what they want to happen with the materials stored in their library accounts after they are gone.  Some might wish to keep the materials in their accounts completely and publicly available, starting immediately.  Some may wish to make automatic deposit arrangements, through which the contents of specified data sources (e.g., their electric bill, their Facebook postings) are fed automatically into their library account.

The library would doubtless impose certain conditions upon accounts.  It may be agreed in the account opening agreement, for example, that the contents of each account will become publicly available on, at the latest, the 110th anniversary of its opening.  Members may have to consent to make their data available to researchers in several phases – not available at all within the first five years, for example; available only for anonymous, quantitative research for the next twenty years, and so forth.

Legislation would probably be needed to insure the integrity and, where needed, the privacy of the library’s contents, so as to encourage people to continue to deposit their biographical data there, without compromising law enforcement and other emerging needs for archived data.  One focus of such concerns would be upon data whose existence would not be known, but for the fact that the member has placed those data into his/her library account.  One possible response in such a situation would be for the library to retain a copy of those data for library purposes, while returning another copy to the member, where it may be subpoenaed.

Within a few decades, this potentially self-supporting institution may begin to yield remarkable scientific insights regarding myriad questions in political and social science.  There may also be data networking possibilities, as the biographical information of males born in, say, 1920 becomes linked with that of other males born in that year, to produce composite perspectives on the experiences of World War II veterans.  Those data networking possibilities may also facilitate the reconstruction of life circumstances of famous persons and also of those who die unmourned, only to be sought out years later by long-lost relatives.  One need only imagine a holographic version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC to get a sense of the enormous possibilities of such a library.

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