Suggestion: The Time to Digitize Historic Items is NOW

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.

It seems that every two or three months, I publish sad news about important records and artifacts being lost forever. Sometimes fires damage or destroy library or archive buildings and all the contents: including records, books, family histories, cemetery records, plat maps, military uniforms, and more. In other articles, I have written about similar losses caused by floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, burst water pipes, leaky roofs, and even about buildings collapsing. Genealogists, historians, art lovers, and others often lose irreplaceable items.

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 or flood or other disaster should ever be able to destroy the only copy of such treasures.

I would not limit the digitization efforts to paper documents and photographs. I would suggest that museums also should be digitizing high-resolution pictures of paintings, sculptures, handicrafts, military uniforms, and much, much more.

Of course, looking at a digital image is never as satisfying as holding the original item in your hands. Digitizing 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 or a priceless painting.

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.

Creating high-resolution digital images of art objects is also valuable when filing a claim with an insurance company.

Digitizing documents is easy. Making true copies of statues, military uniforms, farm machinery, 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 standing in front of a painting or a sculpture created by one of the Old Masters, but a digital image is still a 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, multiple copies can be made and easily stored in many locations at minimal expense. 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, too. 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?


One Comment

It’s a good challenge. There seem to be far to many accidents for comfort especially in public collections – though I would expect much heavier losses occur and have occurred (unnoticed) in family collections.
While I agree that “Digitizing documents is easy” when we are dealing with A1 sized documents or 100,000 potential images scanning isn’t always cheap (especially for a private individual) if you want to preserve the detail.
Possibly I am a rare exception (but not by any means unique) in having thousands of documents (in my case original 18th and 19th century newspapers). I specify scanning at 600dpi greyscale for newspapers to ensure capture of text detail (large papers can have very small print) . But it will quite a long time in small bites (or an expensive large format scanner) – to make them available


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