WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.
Many of us read some sad news this week: arsonists set fire to the Isanti County (Minnesota) Historical Society building on Friday. The fire destroyed most everything in the building, including church records, school yearbooks, family histories, wartime scrapbooks, cemetery records, plat maps from the 1800s, military uniforms, and even sewing machines. You can read more at http://goo.gl/uwaVI.
Apparently, the society never made copies of the materials, and most of the collection is lost forever. Many of the treasures were one-of-a-kind items and cannot be replaced. Future historians, genealogists, and others all lose as a result of this tragedy.
Sadly, such losses are not unusual, whether by deliberate arson or accidental fires or flood or burst water pipes or storm damage or even occasional leaky roofs. All these disasters cause some of our most valued treasures to be lost forever. With a little bit of planning, the worst of these tragedies could be averted or at least minimized.
I would suggest that copies be made of everything that is valuable to today's genealogists and historians as well as to future generations. Items such as church records, school yearbooks, family histories, wartime scrapbooks, cemetery records, and plat maps should be scanned NOW and have multiple copies stored in different locations. No single future fire, flood, or other disaster should ever be able to destroy the only copy of such treasures.
Of course, looking at a digital image is never as satisfying as holding the original document in your hands. Digitizing now is not a perfect solution for all purposes. Nonetheless, using a digital image is still much better than holding a few charred remnants of a valuable document in your hands.
Of course, once an item has been digitized, it is easily shared, at the organization's discretion. Such images can be shared with distant patrons who may never have the opportunity to visit in person. Access can be made free or kept behind a "pay wall," at the option of the organization. Many museums and libraries find they now serve many more patrons online than they could ever accommodate in person.
Digitizing documents is easy. Making true copies of military uniforms, sewing machines, and other physical objects is more or less impossible. Even so, I would suggest that high-resolution, color pictures of these items should be digitized and stored off-site. That's an imperfect solution, of course, but is still better than looking at a mass of molten metal or burnt cloth and trying to imagine what it used to be.
I have read numerous articles about various art museums' efforts to digitize the great art treasures of the world. A digital copy will never approach the experience of the original and viewing a digital image will never equal the the feelings experienced when standing in front of a painting or a sculpture created by one of the Old Masters. Still, a digital image is a much better substitute than a destroyed or stolen painting or statue. A digital image still provides at least some value to art students and aficionados worldwide.
I don't think anyone would ever recommend making a single copy of documents on microfilm or even on computer disks and then storing that single copy in the same building with the collection. By digitizing the images, dozens of copies can be made and stored in many locations easily and cheaply. If that is done, the odds of any one disaster having an impact on future research are minimized. Of course, those copies need to be updated every few years, copied to new storage media as the technology changes. Luckily, this is easy to do. Through occasional “data maintenance,” scanned images of our treasures can be preserved for centuries.
Do you belong to a historical society, a genealogical society, a library, or some other organization that holds a unique and valuable collection? If so, what is that organization doing to ensure that their priceless possessions will be available for examination by future generations?
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