In the past few weeks, North America has seen an incredible number of natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires. While figuring out how to take care of basic needs such as food and shelter, museum workers and archivists have been struggling to figure out how to best take care of their collections. In one recent example, the home of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was just destroyed in a wildfire, presumably along with many artifacts that still remained in the house.
Meanwhile, archivists in the United Kingdom’s National Archives have been dealing with a very different kind of struggle — digitizing their collection and working towards a goal of becoming “a digital archive by design.” By last year, the Archives had made 230 million documents digitally available to the public, compared with 600,000 documents physically available.
The concurrence of these two news items makes one wonder of the possibilities of digitization as a precaution for destruction. What would the implications be if an archives were destroyed, but all documents had been digitized?
Probably the most glaring issue this brings up is that of permanence. which James M. O’Toole has argued has changed meaning over the years. Whether this quality is interpreted as keeping the documents fixed in time, preserving the information as separate from the physical document, or the intrinsic value of the documents themselves, digitization calls permanence into question through potential issues such as duplication, file loss, or access to an internet connection.
That said, wide-scale digitization cannot replace the appeal of original documents; O’Toole describes how, as technology advanced and microfilm usage increased in the early 20th century, so did concerns about preserving deteriorating documents. While digitization provides many important benefits beyond convenient preservation, such as wider access, it cannot compare to the visceral experience of handling original documents.
So how would the UK’s National Archives fare, for example, with damage to documents given its massive digitized collection? Some may argue, as Schellenberg does, of the importance of a document’s intrinsic value, and that research done without it is weaker. Others, as O’Toole notes, are more concerned with maintaining an information-rich society, in which case the digitization would suffice.
All in all, while digitizing documents should not be an archive’s main defense against potential destruction, it’s a technological process that vastly increases access and ease of research.
O’Toole, James M. “On the Idea of Permanence.” The American Archivist 52, no. 1 (1989): 10-25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40293309.
Sulek, Julia Prodis. “Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’s widow flees Santa Rosa fire, home destroyed.” The Mercury News, 12 October 2017.
Trendall, Sam. “How The National Archives is digitising 1,000 years of history.” Public Technology, 5 October 2017. https://www.publictechnology.net/articles/features/how-national-archives-digitising-1000-years-history