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Feb 11, 2022

Preserving Documents Digitally

What do the following headlines from past issues of this newsletter have in common?

Hancock County, Georgia, Courthouse Burned (August 12, 2014)

Van Buren County, Tennessee Offices Destroyed by Fire, Birth, Marriage, Death, and Many Other Records Lost (January 9, 2015)

Fire in Major Russian Library Destroys One Million Historic Documents (February 1, 2015)

Home of the Marissa (Illinois) Historical and Genealogical Society Destroyed by Fire (January 31, 2015)

Roof Collapses at Iowa Genealogical Society Library (December 31, 2009)

Fire Destroys Much of Indiana Historical Collection (December 30, 2009)

Cologne [Germany] Archives Building Collapses; 3 Missing, Many Escape (March 03, 2009)

Archives Damaged in Italian Earthquake (April 07, 2009)

Louisville Library Regains Use of Genealogy Room After Flash Floods (September 11, 2009)

Help Save the Archives of Ontario [from mold that is destroying records] (February 18, 2005)

Genealogy Lost in Twister (November 18, 2002)

North Dakota Records Lost [in the great flood of 1997] (April 28, 1997)

New Jersey Historical Documents and Artifacts Damaged in Flood (April 24, 2007)

Jefferson Davis’ Biloxi Home Beauvoir [and Records] Reported “Demolished” by Hurricane Katrina (August 31, 2005)

Library Rescues Genealogy Books [after a tornado] (June 2, 2003)

Resident Rescues Genealogy Papers from Wildfire (June 06, 2006)

Do you see a pattern here? We cannot plan on having access to original documents forever. In fact, many valuable documents will disappear in the future due to disasters over which we have no control.

Many people believe that scanning old documents and making digital images is not good for archival purposes. They argue that digital images don’t last long and that “the required equipment to view the images won’t be available in twenty-five years.”

However, most archivists will say that the truth is exactly the opposite: by use of some very simple data maintenance methods (already used by governments, corporations, and non-profits all over the world), digital images can often last for centuries, much longer than the physical paper documents.

I will suggest that the discussion of records preservation needs to consider ALL possibilities. In this case, we have seen many instances where records were destroyed by Mother Nature, despite the best efforts of archivists and preservationists.

I will also suggest that there is no perfect method of guaranteeing that records will be available to future genealogists and historians. However, we certainly can improve the odds by performing all of the following:

1. Do whatever it takes to preserve original (physical) records. This means not only keeping the documents themselves safe from mold, mildew, insects, and other problems, but also housing the records in buildings that are as fireproof and flood-proof and earthquake-proof as possible.

2. Recognize the fact that preservation of documents by traditional means is never perfect. Some number of paper documents will be destroyed, whether by simply degradation of the paper or by natural disasters, such as fire, floods, and earthquakes. In short, we cannot depend on having a single copy of anything. We must have duplicate copies, which these days means digital images.

3. Having one duplicate is not enough. We need to make multiple duplicates and store them in different locations so that no one hurricane or flood or fire or other disaster will destroy all the copies. Luckily, with digital images, it is easy to store duplicate copies in several different locations.

4. We cannot allow the digital images to become obsolete. As technology changes, the digital backups need to be copied often to new storage media. Just because a floppy disk or a CD-ROM disk suffices today does not mean that it will be a viable storage media in a few years. If the document is important to someone, it needs to be copied to new storage media every few years.

Planning and preservation efforts apply equally to both large government archives and your personal genealogy records stored at home. With a bit of advance planning, we can ensure that valuable records are available to everyone in the future.