Tucked away among my father's papers is a 19th- century marriage certificate with considerable sentimental appeal. Rolled up, it resembles a diploma. Unfurled, it reveals the details of his paternal grandparents' wedding on Thanksgiving Day 1875 in the tiny town of Caldwell, Wis.
Fancy lettering embellishes the crisp paper, still pristine a century and a quarter later. In addition to the who-what-where-when facts and the signature of the officiating minister, it includes cameo photos of the young couple, preserving one of the few pictures of my great-grandmother. This single piece of paper brings alive an event those of us who are their descendants know nothing about.
Documents like this will become even more treasured as the digital revolution marches on. In Britain, a move is afoot to abolish the paper certificates that record births, marriages, and deaths. Within two years, the government hopes to move that information onto central databases.
If that happens, will the United States be far behind?
Critics worry about a loss of civil liberties as online records make it easy to collect information on everyone. Supporters counter by lauding paperless records for their cool efficiency, noting that families can send information by phone or computer.
But cool efficiency is exactly what is troubling about the trend. Sure, it's easy to download documents and print them out in electronic form, devoid of charm. Yet if the paper trail ends, what happens to the richness of original documents passed along from generation to generation?
Certificates recording major life events represent only one part of the potential loss. Other family documents and memorabilia may also go digital. Can we expect database diplomas and online diaries? And how do you tie a ribbon around a stack of e-mail love letters?
More questions: If digital pictures stored on the computer become the norm, will family photo albums become a relic of the past? What if the computer crashes? Even if it doesn't, gathering the family around a screen to look at pictures hardly creates the same mood as cuddling a child in a parent's or grandparent's lap, turning pages in an album and saying, "That's you as a baby," or, "Remember our trip to Disney?"
Even death certificates have their uses. My father's files include his maternal grandfather's death certificate, which is unexpectedly revealing. It notes that he was a dairy farmer for 65 years, and that he worked until the last week of his life in 1937. Where else can later generations find such a storehouse of details?
Family histories are factual, a mix of names, dates, places, events. They're also visual and tactile: Scrapbooks, albums, photos, and letters create a patchwork of mementos and memories. Think of the pleasure of studying the slant of handwriting on an old letter, flipping through the pages of an ancestor's diary, or running fingers across the worn leather cover of an old album.
To praise paper is not to disparage technology. E-mail and digital photos can circle the world in the blink of an eye, transcending the vagaries of the post office. And databases can retrieve information in a fraction of a second.
But something irretrievable will be lost if original documents disappear. Their potential demise should not be lightly dismissed as irrelevant by the download generation.
Every family has its own assorted memorabilia, ranging from solemn to quirky. Individually, single items may tell little. Collectively, they help to paint a family portrait that says, This is who we are.
Long live the database. And long live the paper trail, too. As successive generations rummage through drawers and trunks, uncovering predigital treasures, they will find links to the past and legacies for the future, far from the cool efficiency of a blinking screen.