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Digital Imperative for Historical Collections

I read the April 2nd Washington Post article about the discovery of the missing patent documents for the Wright brothers’ “flying machine” with mixed emotions. As an historian, I am thrilled that determined archivists were able to track down what is universally regarded as a national treasure, missing – likely due to being misfiled – for more than thirty years. As a digital innovator, I see another example of celebrating “history saved” obfuscating the serious reality that our history is in danger, and I am frustrated.

History goes missing on a daily basis. Not only from misplacement or due to the understandable mishaps that occur from time to time when managing billions of pages of documents. History goes missing because it is not available in the places where most people now seek information: in the digital world. That we feel great relief and pride in the story of rediscovering the Wright brothers’ “flying machine” patent documents is important. But it also indicates something bigger – that we value access to such materials, that we would not wish to see them forever lost. With the vast majority of our primary source historical materials locked away in the analog form, they are already lost, whether filed correctly or not.

We face an imperative to digitize our materials. I do not mean only to scan them so that there is a digital replica, but to make them truly accessible for current and future generations of people who seek out their information using a digital format. I talk to organizations on a daily basis that understand this need and face the daunting obstacle of raising the necessary funds to comprehensively digitize their collections in way that they can be truly searchable. Most organizations seem to have accepted that the needed funding is simply impossible to obtain. But the key to funding lies in our demand that comprehensive digitization is not a luxury, but an imperative. When the roof of the local library is caving in, we gather as a community and create a campaign to save the building and the precious content it houses. We find a solution.

What we are failing to grasp in the digital age is that the roofs to our historical institutions are already caving in on a scale we refuse to believe. And we must find a solution. The first step is to understand the true danger we are facing if we fail to move our history to the digital world in a comprehensive and meaningful way. If we do not, we will have cultural heritage institutions that become increasingly irrelevant in the public eye and, more alarmingly, we will increasingly become a society without access to the core evidence of our past.

So, while I applaud the great work that led to the discovery of our missing national treasure, I do so with worry. File it away so that we know where it is. Even put it in the “treasure vault” as recommended by National Archives and Records Administration Chief Operating Officer William J. Bosanko. But if we do not make it, and the billions of other pages from our past, available digitally, we are simply misfiling it again.

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