How much is your yearbook worth? Rise of the forgotten generation

Image of the very first edition of the Murray State University yearbook, “The Shield”

My world was shaken a bit last week and, as it relates both to keepsake photography and my time at Murray State University, I figured I could would expound upon it in this week’s blog. Last week I learned MSU is no longer producing its yearbook, “The Shield”.

Then, it got worse. Not only did I learn that this past year had slipped solely into the shaky annals of human memory and social media, but the five before it as well! I was previously unaware that, following 83 years, the presses had stopped in 2008. And there are many more missed years to come, I’m sure. And let’s face it, as technology progresses and budgets are cut, costs associated with production and printing will likely deal a final blow to remaining college yearbooks and it might not end until it bottoms out at preschool.

To me, this is unfortunate. And the sad truth is those students moving through those magical years today are not going to realize just how unfortunate until it is far too late. This might be one of those times when the young might consider taking advice from one who is not so old as to be blind to the potential extinction of the traditional yearbook, but is old enough to know why this will lead to remorse for a lot of folks down the line. Do you want to hear this wisdom from a member of the in-between generation? From one who has lived the bridge between paper and digital predominance? Well, it seems you have found one. So let me don my gray robe, oversized hat, long beard, and mysterious staff and tell you a tale of foreboding.

First let me begin by noting Murray State isn’t the only university to make this move and, unfortunately, there are some very sound reasons for doing so. In the article from last week’s Murray State NewsYearbook missed by students, faculty”, they cite decline in popularity as their primary reason for ceasing publication, however, there are other slightly older articles out there (“Social media has diminished yearbook sales,’ but they remain popular keepsake for students”) which expand upon the decline citing social media and the economy.

Lack of popularity I get, as that problem existed when I was there. Students would gladly (and sometimes out of misguided independence) trade having their portraits freely cemented within their alma mater’s archives for just 20 more minutes of sleep one morning. Then, when it came time to order their book, they had little drive to do so, as they were not part of it. The economy I would also classify as a priority issue, as a couple of skipped pizzas could easily pay for one of these books. However, the rise of social media…Now that is one with which I did not have to contend. And that is the worst, as it is not about defiance or priorities, as much as it is about today’s youth placing way too much untested faith into their devices’ archival abilities. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I have ever heard one social media device created boasting of their products’ heirloom qualities. Have you?

Courtesy of theawkwardyeti.com
Courtesy of theawkwardyeti.com

Now you say “Patrick, you old man, you’re just afraid of change. Raise your iPhone and experience the future, you rigid dinosaur!” The unfortunate thing is: I have lived through a smattering of such faith in technology and I can tell you, to this day, the printed page’s only true rival is blind faith in electricity. And, unlike the many young iPad wielders at MSU today, who, as the article notes, do not even remember The Shield, I have a little anecdotal evidence to back me up!

When I was a teenager back in the 1990s (yes, I’m that old) I had several computer games I enjoyed playing. I also had many floppy disks containing stories I had written for class or just for fun. Some even contained pictures of me and my friends for projects we worked on at school. Of course, by today’s standards, these were by no means a library of my youth. In fact, I’m sure there are kindergarteners out there today with more of an electronic presence than I had at age 16.

Now, pay attention, as this is where the harsh realities of progress and age take hold. Today, those games-ALL OF THEM-will not work on my current computer. Not that I have much time to play them anyway, but even for nostalgia purposes, they are a no-go. Many of them were written for Windows 3.1 or 95 (wow, I am old!) And now we are six operating systems and countless updates removed from those days. And this is to say nothing of the change in computer hardware! Did you know, at one time, we referred to one of our home hard drives as “the gigabyte” hard drive?! (Let’s hear it: OLD!)

As for my personal pictures and stories I had stored on those many 3.5″ disks, if you can find slot for them on a modern PC or Mac, most will pop up a message telling you how the file is corrupted or simply cannot be read. This is just 20 years later and just about everything I had stored digitally back in my teen years is gone or is unretrievable.

Having been through this, I recall, later, my student advisor and professor, Ann Landini (yes the same lovely lady mentioned in the article), discussing the notion of “The Shield” going to a CD-ROM disc format as opposed to the traditional hardback book. She was asking our opinion on the matter and I said it would be better to go to DVD, as the home video format is likely to withstand the test of time better than a computer format. To date, I was correct. In fact, I still have DVDs from college that I watch regularly and I have CD-ROMs I burned just seven years ago that the computer can’t read. however, having been out of college only about 12 years and seeing the current changes the standard DVD has undergone and continues to undergo, who knows about the next 12, right?

One may blame wear and tear on outdated mediums for this loss. I mean discs can be scratched, while those 3.5″ discs were sensitive to refrigerator magnets, fingerprints and dust. Anyone who knows what I am talking about will fall to the floor, shiver, and sweat at the very notion of pulling the shutter back and exposing the magnet disk. This is true. Those mediums are/were fragile, however, while today’s gadgets have failure points as well, it is not always physical decay that is your enemy. All it takes is one change in the way digital files are stored or shared in the name of space, time, and cost and, eventually, newer technology will progressively stop recognizing today’s formats as well. The true problem is: People do not fully fathom the amount of personal maintenance that goes into prolonging the life of digital information. Believe me, as a 35-year-old who has lived through several “blue screens of death” on many PCs and has spent many a weekend making backups of important data, I know.

But that is an old man’s worry. We have online storage today, right? The ever-popular “cloud” of information that is someone else’s daily charge to maintain. Well, who knows, all those free social media storage services could one day go to a subscription-based format or simply disappear without notice. Then ask these questions: How much is your “yearbook” worth to you? Are you instead going to trust all your memories to the latest, often-updated Windows software on a physically degradable hard drive? Are you just going to continue to store them on your annually-outdated, accident-prone iPhone you pack in your vulnerable, blue jeans pocket?

And, with dedicated, subscription-based, data storage “cloud” services currently rivaling the unstable method of home data storage, I ask the tech-savvy youth to project this scenario out over the next 10-20 years. Now, I ask again: How much is your “yearbook” worth to you?

But, as the article notes, maybe not having the yearbook will spark interests in reviving it! Maybe the newer generations are already learning their lesson and this whole argument will be moot point in the near future. One can only hope!

For now, I am one of the lucky ones. When all is said and done, this dinosaur can pull out my traditional yearbooks. From first grade (1986) to my senior year at MSU (2002), I can relive the nostalgia. See faces I might have forgotten. See places that no longer exist. See an ambience long gone. See good times that bring me back. In fact, I even see copies of those yearbooks for sale around town from time to time and I often just flip through them to reminisce for a moment. It requires no translation, no file reconstruction, no backwards compatible protocols. Just my eyes and the ability to read and remember.

And, did I bookend my collection with my first grade yearbook above? Yes I did. Which leads me to one final anecdote: You see, when I was in kindergarten, we were unable to afford my yearbook that year. That is one book I do not have in my personal archive and probably never will. So, yes, I know what it is like to be missing a year of memories. So, see, even as an “old” man of 35 years, I can still relate to the unseen plights of the modern youth…and I weep for them.

NEW ADDITION: Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook, this article was brought to my attention in February 2015. I figure it is a good fit in this blog as it would appear Google also agrees with me on this subject! Check it out: (A Warehouse Fire of Digital Memories)

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