Top of page

When it Comes to Keepsakes, What’s the Difference Between Physical and Digital?

Share this post:

I’m cleaning out my office in preparation for retiring on March 7. I’ve accumulated a few mementos during my career, and moving them out stirs up memories.

Our Records, Your Responsibilities
Our Records, Your Responsibilities

One of my favorite keepsakes is a framed 1986 poster from the National Archives and Records Administration that proclaims “Our Records, Your Responsibilities.” It offers little in the way aesthetics (to put it mildly) but it always evokes memories of working with a wonderful group of people on projects with meaning and purpose. The association is powerful–it reaches into my ideas about professional identity, government service and striving for big goals. I well remember where the poster originally hung in the old office 25 years ago and how happy I was to get it as a parting gift when I moved on to the next job. It’s slowly turning brown around the edges, and that visible aging is a poignant reminder about how much time has passed.

Objectively I agree it’s a little weird to get misty-eyed over a records management notice. But that’s the nature of memory tokens: they’re symbols for significant feelings and ideas about who we are. They help us mark meaning in our lives.

But is there a difference between physical and digital mementos? For me there is.

Now, I affirm that all keepsakes vary in the degree to which they resonate in our hearts. But there is something slippery and uncanny about a digital object as a memory token. First and foremost there’s the question about where and what the object is. Unlike my poster, a digital file can’t sit in plain sight. It requires a machine to view. The object also can be hard to find in the first place because it likely lives with thousands of others in a virtual environment that may be difficult to navigate. There can be multiple copies, some identical, some not.

NDIIPP People, 2005
From 2005

Consider the digital photograph to the left, which I took in 2005. It shows a group of people I worked with on NDIIPP projects at the time, and the photo evokes plenty of memories, some of which had lain dormant for years. Interestingly, the picture is both more and less suggestive than the physical poster. It’s more evocative in that it suddenly restores details and associations that had faded in my memory. But it’s less evocative for the same reason–there’s no patina, no natural aging of the artifact to burnish its emotional meaning. The picture seems to have just popped out of a wormhole.

But there is more involved in the difference between digital and physical keepsakes.

The idea for this post struck me as I was packing up my old NARA poster.  Seeing it, touching it in the context of my looming retirement automatically led to thoughts about the function of personal mementos. I could have picked another similar object at hand, such as the black basalt cobblestone I picked up on an Oregon magic beach during a work trip to examine Bonneville Power Administration records, or maybe my framed quote from Ecclesiastes 9:11. I had placed all them close to where I work to serve some kind of emotional-spatial-identity purpose, and each of them regularly leap into my sight and into my awareness.

My digital mementos, however, are hidden on machines and media. I have a vague sense of what’s there, and I have organized my files somewhat. But I’m hazy about the individual items, both because I only view them occasionally and because there are so many of them. When I started this post I knew I would have to pick a digital file as an example–but I wasn’t sure which one. I had to hunt my hard drive to find the right image to compare with the poster. It’s like some kind of strange quantum mechanics effect: the memento function only takes place when I choose to look for a particular digital photograph; when I’m not looking, all the potential memories exist in an undifferentiated cloud of bits.

The issue here is that it’s harder for me to form an emotional connection with a cloud of bits than it is with an object I am familiar with on an everyday basis. I’m going to preserve my digital photographs, of course, because of am aware of their potential emotional significance. And in retirement, maybe I’ll have time to figure out a way to interact more routinely with my digital mementos and form stronger bonds with them.

On thing is for sure, though: that funky old poster is going on the wall next to my home work space.

Comments (16)

  1. Great article; thank you. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, but I like the way you explained it. I used to be obsessed with cataloging and keeping photos and mementos, so I was thrilled when digital technology allowed me to do so more easily and safely without nightmares about a fire ravaging my photo collection. But now I’ve come to realize that the ephemeral nature of the physical item is part of its draw, and as you mentioned, the aging of the paper and yellowing of photos helps us mark time. Now I find that I never look back through my digital photos or scans unless I need them for a specific purpose, and would probably not notice if someone deleted half of them.

    • Erin, thanks for your comment. That “out of sight, out of mind” aspect of digital does, I think, lead to less concern about keeping them. It would be great if technology could help use bring the best parts of physical keepsakes to the digital realm; not sure how that would work, but it would make a big difference. –Bill

  2. Bill, do you happen to have a larger size of that poster or know where to get one? I’d love to put up a copy in my office!
    Also, thanks for the great article!

    • John, there are (not very good) versions of it in Google Books, of all places, as it was originally issued as a published “fact sheet.” Happy to send you a larger version of my photograph, however. Have to say I’m touched that ANYONE else would want to display it!


  3. I’ve moved my office here too many times to count, and one piece of paper has traveled with me all my years – a handwritten sheet that says “Hannah Arendt” on it, signifying the first big project I was assigned to manage. In my latest move, I finally decided to part with the paper version but took a digital photo of it as a keepsake. Now I’m not so sure that was the wisest idea! My next move I won’t stumble across it and think fondly of those early days.

    • Beware the digital surrogate! 😉

  4. Regarding the digital photograph: After a period of time the software components might add that patina you relish. For example, opening an image file from 1997 in Windows 95 would give you a different feel for the age of the image than opening it in modern software does.
    Software as patina. An interesting thought!

  5. Very nice piece, Bill. One other issue along these lines: the neglect of a box of photographic prints and posters can actually be an accidental act of preservation. Digital objects aren’t as likely to survive for years in the attic. Even with emulation technology on the rise, the inherent vices of deteriorating media and bit rot may leave torn edges that can’t be repaired.

  6. I enjoyed your document and smiled when I saw you are retiring on the same day I am.

  7. I am so happy to see this on a Monday morning, Bill. I will miss your voice. It has inspired me to do what I need to do today. You have been a beacon in the digital deep space. I want to trust the Dark Archive; it appears to be our only choice; but also want to know that what is significant in the present will be available to the future. Regards and best wishes for the days ahead.

    • Ann, thank you so much! It’s been great dealing with all the fine people around the world like you who care so deeply about keeping and making sense of digital culture. I still hope to keep writing about such things after I leave, so stay tuned! 🙂

  8. Bill,

    I’d love a high res of that poster as well. a great nostalgia for us archivists.

    • Elise, thanks! I’ll send you a copy via email.

  9. There is also the impact a physical artifact on the other senses: the musty smell of age; the tactile feel, whether hard, soft, crinkly, brittle, etc.

    All of these serve to enhance the memories attached to a personal artifact, whereas the digital image has none of these, adding to the impersonal nature of its existence.


  10. Bill,

    Thanks very much for the post. Your questions about the personal value we hold for digital vs physical assets is quite an interesting topic.I also find it fascinating that physical assets we have to which we hold little personal attachment can become so valuable to future generations that seek to make some connection with the past. My gut tells me that hundreds of years from now the feelings of attachment we hold for the physical may wane as digital assets become the sole connection we have to the past. In some ways we can have our cake and eat it too… most of us can now easily create printed copies of our digital photos and let them age gracefully!

    This raises the question if we hold a physical photo printed from an inkjet printer in different regard than one printed by a photo processor from a negative or transparency? This may hold similarities to the continuing debate between vinyl (analog) and digital music.

    If anyone is interested in reading an in-depth look at related issues, I highly recommend Richard Banks’ eBook “The future of looking back”.

    • Russ,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve read some of Richard Banks’ thoughts on the subject and agree that he has some great insights!


Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.