Suggestion: The Time to Digitize Historic Items is NOW

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.

building-fireIt 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 losses can 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,  furniture, 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, also. 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?

6 Comments

I agree with your sentiments 100%. Hopefully others will agree and start digitising their records.

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Several years ago we had a church that had been in existence for over 100 years burn to the ground taking all the church’s documents with it. I decided that I would digitize all our church’s records–our church was one of the first in existence in Bay City established in 1854. Once a week I took my digital camera and took 200-300 pages of pictures. I not only did the paper records but also the vestments, chalices, crosses, etc. It took me over 3 years–of course some weeks I was gone or family matters took precedent. Now I’m trying to catalog the images by titling the shot and placing it into the correct folder. That’s what’s taking the time. I try to do a little each day but I’m comforted by the thought that at least the images are there away from the church if a disaster happens. I have them stored on 3 different hard drives for redundancy. There’s a big need out there for people to take the records of the city or historical society or church or whatever and copy them digitally. My initial idea was to place the records on a separate hard drive dedicated to the church and give it to the church but now I’m exploring the cloud idea. Still trying to figure out how that could work so that scholars and others could have access. A work in progress.

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    Mary,
    Have you considered contacting your local Genealogical Society? They may be able to get the local library serve as a repository for the digital images, and indexes.
    As a volunteer with the Macomb County (Michigan) Genealogy Group, I’m involved in the digitalization and indexing of church and other genealogically significant records, that otherwise may be lost. The Mount Clemens (Michigan) Public Library, serves as the repository. We have photographed the record books of several local churches and funeral homes. We are always looking to do more.
    It sounds like you have done a great deal of hard work, in preserving records for your community. Keep up the good work.

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Digitization is great, but don’t forget that good, old fashioned microfilming is also a solid option in many situations. As you mention, digital files need active attention and management every few years to remain viable — which means they’re vulnerable to disruptions in personnel or funding. That’s especially problematic if the public believes that the initial act of digitization is what “saves” something and that no further resources will be needed. Under decent conditions, microfilm survives benign neglect for a long time, and it can still be more economical to produce and store over the long term than digital files. Ideally, we should be using a strategic combination of both processes to assure the best short-term access and long-term preservation of our important cultural heritage collections.

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    —> but don’t forget that good, old fashioned microfilming is also a solid option in many situations

    Except that microfilm is now almost impossible to obtain. All the major manufacturers stopped producing new (unexposed) microfilm several years ago. There are still one or two small, specialty manufacturers of microfilm but I understand they have already told their customers that they plan to shut down their production lines within a year or less. Microfilm is disappearing. The manufacturers now receive so few orders for microfilm that it is no longer cost-justified to run their production lines.

    I know the folks at FamilySearch have purchased all the remaining blank microfilms they could find in order to keep their decreasing microfilm operations going for a few more years. However, even FamilySearch expects to run out of microfilm within a very few years.

    Microfilm READERS will probably be available for a few more years, as long as there is some demand, but those also will disappear probably within the next ten years or so, give or take a bit.

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I am happy to report that was what we did at the library before I retired, and have been doing with our local genealogical society since 2005. And yes, various mishaps have already occurred to the originals.

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