David McMillen of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has written an article in the National Archives blog questioning the future of archives and museums. He raises intriguing possibilities.
Until recently, we have always wanted to see the original documents of papers that are important to us. Not only for sentimental reasons, but also for the fact that copies have never been perfect reproductions of the originals. Now that is changing. As McMillen writes:
Technology has long been able to create images that were indistinguishable from the original. We have on display in the Public Vaults a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that is disturbingly difficult to distinguish from the real document. Our specialists routinely make copies of important documents that take an expert to discern from the original.
Today, technology has the ability to make documents better than real. We already use some of these techniques in the Public Vault. Visitors can touch a screen and magically the German text is translated into English. Scholars at the University of Illinois are developing a search engine that will that will read cursive. No longer will we need to lament that they no longer teach cursive in schools or that young children stand before the Constitution saying, “I wish I could read that.” Instead the words will appear before them.
Now that the technology is available to make perfect copies, why do we need to view the originals? In fact, do we even need to store the originals if an electronic copy can be stored in less space, at lower cost, and can be used at any time to create faithful reproductions of the originals that even fool the experts?
We could save billions of tax dollars if we convert to an all electronic archive, complete with multiple copies, stored in multiple locations for safety purposes. In theory, such an electronic archive could keep "original" documents safe forever, safe from fire, flood, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, mold, and rodents.
You can read David McMillen's entire article at http://blogs.archives.gov/online-public-access/?p=7541.
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