Writing for the Future

Those of us who have photographs, letters, journals and other writings from our ancestors are blessed with a view of their worlds that no amount of vital records can provide. These are precious treasures which we spend a lot of time, money and effort to preserve. But, what are we doing to document and preserve a personal record of our lives for those who come after us?

DayOne Journal

Journal entry in the DayOne app for Mac.

In today’s digital world we have some amazing tools for capturing photographs, conversations and video clips, giving us the ability to document – and share – all kinds of special moments. The joys of digital media are tempered with some concerns. At the top of that list is how quickly things change. Anyone who’s had a desktop computer for more than a couple of years knows the frustration of documents that can no longer be opened because the software application that created that document no longer exists. Yes, this is a concern, but it’s a manageable one.

Data formats for the written word have come and gone, but one has been around since the very beginning of the digital age – plain text. It is just that – plain. There are no font changes, no bold or underline, no colors. It’s just alpha, numeric and special characters.

Next up the chain of data formats is something relatively new – markdown. It’s plain text with simple codes, created using plain text characters, to represent formatting commands. When viewed in its “plain” state, it’s quite readable, but it’s also very easy to develop programs that can process those simple codes and reformat the document into something very attractive. And, as technology changes, the original document is still quite readable and new conversion programs can be quickly created to jazz it up. For a better discussion of what markdown is, see Markdown – an archival standard for digital documents.

Although you won’t yet find markdown included as a “Save as” or “Export” option on most mainstream word processing applications, it’s getting a lot of attention from journaling apps. For example, the Day One app [Mac - $9.99, iOS - $4.99] uses markdown as its standard format and offers export options to PDF and plain text.

Cherokee Rose article

A family story posted on my personal blog.

The data format getting the most attention these days is HyperText Markup Language (HTML). This has been the format of the Web and is now also the format of ebooks. Like markdown, it is plain text with codes – known as tags. Unlike markdown it’s not so simple. For a simple ebook novel that’s all text, the HTML code should be very readable in its raw form. A web page full of graphics, charts and links is quite a different story. Fortunately for us, computers don’t have a problem reading and processing the code to present us with a beautiful visual experience. And, because HTML is an industry standard format, it will travel from app to app – even platform to platform – with minimal effort.

How does all this impact the family historian?

One reason geneablogging is getting so much attention is its longevity. Not only are blogs built with HTML, they have an organizational standard that means they are very search-engine friendly (which helps attract research cousins) and can be moved from one blog platform to another. There are services which will convert your blog posts into ebooks and even print books. Most blog platforms offer backup and export options so you can maintain multiple copies – both online and offline. A growing number of journaling and text-editing apps have publish to blog features – giving you an extra layer of archival protection.

In a couple of weeks I will celebrate ten years of blogging. During that time I’ve documented a lot of family history – one story at a time. While the thought of sitting down and writing a “family history” has always been quite intimidating, it didn’t take long to blog enough stories for a book. Is it a complete family history? Not even close. But it doesn’t have to be. Using simple tools, I was able to pull out and reorganize the stories I wanted into a simple ebook to share with my family. And, as the stories grow, so does the ebook. It’s all digital so it’s very easy to update and redistribute.

Nothing lasts forever and digital platforms come and go. My family’s private blog site was on the Posterous platform which was bought by Twitter and later shut down. I was able to export our content and import it at another blog platform – actually to two different ones. Plus, I have a backup copy of the export file on my desktop. These other blog platforms saw the business potential Posterous’ shut down represented and did everything they could to help make the migration as easy as possible.

Don’t let technology concerns keep you from documenting your family history. Start with a blog on a reputable platform. You can get started with WordPress.com in a matter of minutes – and at no cost. Posthaven, created as a replacement for the Posterous platform, will cost you $5.00/month but promises it will be there as long as you want it. Platforms like Google’s Blogger and Yahoo’s Tumblr offer free and easy-to-use blogging, but are not their companies’ main priority.

Experiment with some of the new journaling apps – especially those that include companion mobile apps. The mobile journal apps take advantage of your device’s camera and location services, giving you the ability to easily include photos in your entry, automatically date stamp and even geo tag each one if you wish. Not only is a journal more appropriate for your private thoughts, but often these apps also offer features to publish selected entries to your blog – saving you time and effort.

Today’s technology make it easy to capture and record our family’s precious moments in ways that will insure they are accessible for many generations to come. Isn’t it time you get started?