The recent tragic news from Germany and Italy points out just how fragile our world is. Documents, works of art, architecture, and more from throughout the centuries can be wiped out within seconds by earthquakes, fires, building collapses, wars, and other calamities. The loss to scholars, historians, genealogists, and others is incalculable. Luckily, we now have the technology and the ability to preserve multiple copies of all these priceless objects for future generations.
I would suggest that we digitize everything and make multiple copies of each copy, to be stored in widely dispersed locations.
To be sure, looking at a digital copy is not as satisfying as examining the original. I love the smell and feel of old paper. Looking at a digital image of a census record or some other old document does not match the feelings and emotions of handling the originals. Microfilm or digital imagery are both poor substitutes for the texture and smell of the originals.
In fact, no digital image or even filmed image will ever match the awe of standing in front of Michelangelo's "David" or looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps the most extreme example would be large buildings and other construction. How can we create digital imagery that reproduces the grandeur and beauty of the Parthenon or the Great Wall of China?
Obviously, we cannot. However, film, microfilm or digital copies do serve as reasonable substitutes. Such copies have served for years to bring information and appreciation to those who were unable to travel to the sites of the originals. After all, worldwide travel is beyond the reach of most of our citizens. Education spreads throughout the world by the use of books, films, and computers.
In a similar manner, I would suggest that every document available to mankind that has even the slightest amount of historical significance should be digitized, and multiple copies should be stored in multiple locations. As technology changes and the storage media of choice becomes obsolete, the images need to be copied to more modern media. History has proven that data maintenance and the copying of images is inexpensive and easily accomplished.
One example is the Social Security Death Index. These records have been digitized for more than forty years. The original records that were recorded in the 1960s were done so at significant expense, and the results were stored on 80-column punch cards. While punch card readers are no longer available, the data is still available and much more easily accessed than ever before. The data that was originally stored on punched cards was later converted to magnetic tape, then converted to magnetic disks, and still later converted to optical disks (CD-ROM, DVD-ROM and Blu-Ray disks).
I am guessing that only single copies of the original punched cards were created. However, as new media appeared, costs dropped. Storage on tape was cheaper than punch cards, storage on disks was cheaper than on tape, and so on and so forth. Each new generation of storage media seems to result in a huge drop in prices. Multiple copies of records became not only practical, but desirable. We now store the same data on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray disks for a fraction of the cost of the filing cabinets alone that were used to store punched cards! We can expect that pricing will continue to drop in the future.
The lessons learned from the Social Security Death Index and from tens of thousands of other data conversion efforts can be applied to the billions of records that have not yet been digitized.
For an example, let's consider the recent destruction of the city archives of Cologne, Germany. This repository was one of the largest municipal archives in Europe and held records dating back more than a millennium. Some documents are being salvaged from the rubble, but it is known that a high percentage of the holdings will never be seen again by historians, scholars, genealogists, or anyone else.
If those documents had been scanned and digitized in previous years, the loss still would have been significant, but something of value would have been left behind. Those same historians, scholars, and genealogists would still be able to study the documents, even though they no longer existed physically.
To be sure, digitizing a few billion old and fragile documents will not be a trivial undertaking. Such efforts will require decades to complete. The costs are huge. However, the loss of such documents is immeasurable.
Archivists and others always have to handle, maintain, document, catalog, re-organize, and sometimes move old documents. When the items are being handled for other purposes, why not add one more item to the list of tasks to be performed: create a digital image? The time required to do so can be measured in minutes if suitable hardware is already installed and readily available.
A few forward-thinking repositories are already involved in such efforts. FamilySearch, the genealogy organization sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) is already converting millions of rolls of microfilm stored in a granite mountain. The National Archives of Great Britain, the National Archives of Scotland, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration all are digitizing millions of their most-requested documents. The Library of Congress has made digitized versions of collection materials available online since 1994, concentrating on its most rare collections and those unavailable anywhere else.
These are not "one time efforts." All of the organizations I have mentioned expect their digitization efforts to continue more or less forever. Smaller archives, libraries, and museums are also beginning to see the benefits of digitization. Not only can they make their materials available to more patrons in more locations, but they also can save on building costs. Placing research materials online means a probable cost reduction in making these physical materials available to the general public. The holding organizations do not need to spend as much money on public reading rooms, rest rooms, microfilm equipment, open stacks, and personnel to serve the general public.
The repositories can offer smaller reading rooms and produce the material by reservation only. The new business plan is that any person who wishes to look at materials would first look at them online. If the online images prove to be insufficient, he or she then can schedule an appointment in the new (smaller) reading room, and the materials can be retrieved from the cramped stacks in advance and delivered to the reading room in time for the appointment.
While not as convenient, millions of dollars can be saved in construction costs of new and ever-expanding facilities to be used by the general public. Space in the repository that was used for public reading rooms can now be converted to storage space to house more documents than ever.
Digitizing of records appears to be a win/win situation: it preserves information and also makes that information more widely available to those who cannot travel to the holding repository.
What is your local organization doing about preserving its most precious resource: information?