“We have more tools today than people had a hundred years ago,” Carol K. Kammen, author of several books on local history and a leading voice on the subject, told The Politic. “A hundred years ago, if I wanted to write about Ithaca, where I live, I would have only had the materials that were in my family or were in the church or the historical society if there was one, but today we have the use of the internet.”
When writing a 2008 history of her hometown, she read the entire Ithaca Journal, a daily newspaper, from 1817 to 1892. Today, she said, she can simply search scans of the newspapers through New York State Historic Newspapers. National historians (and, usually, anyone with interest) can now use keywords to search large digital collections that were previously scattered or harder to probe.
The benefits of new technologies, though, are not limited to better search capabilities. The internet allows easier and wider access to records that were previously available only to visitors onsite. Digitization allows storage of more records, as digital records consume significantly less space than their physical counterparts. Even developments creating more effective climate control improve document preservation by preventing harmful temperature swings.
Large archival institutions already integrate technology in their collection and storage practices. The Library of Congress has a large and expanding digital collection, and the National Archives has an electronic records preservation system.
Local historical societies that have the resources (temporal, financial, and human) to invest in new technologies can and do use them to advance their missions, but a large portion lack the knowledge and resources to make such investments. One important technology widely used by local historical societies is a museum cataloging software called PastPerfect. Societies use it to create a register of their items similar to a library catalog. It is not perfect, as it was designed for museums, but it is affordable, so historical societies make it work. They can use the latest version (released in 2015) to make their catalog searchable online, but, without enough volunteers, the digital migration can prove difficult and time-consuming. After the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society in Michigan catalogued its 7,000 items on PastPerfect, it struggled for years to enter metadata for each item.
Technology provides clear benefits, but it brings challenges.
One question an archivist must ask is whether a file will remain accessible in the future. Though JPEGs and MP4s are relatively new, the challenge of planning for technological obsolescence is not a new one for archivists. They adapted to audio and video tapes, floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, and a bevy of other file formats that are no longer in wide use. Constantly changing technology is expensive and creates uncertainty for any organization hoping to preserve the past and present.
Record digitization is also labor intensive and often expensive. It usually requires volunteers to individually scan and catalog thousands of documents, and a purchase of the necessary equipment. Making scans searchable is sometimes an additional challenge. As a result, many local historical societies stick to print storage. Others are creating more digital storage, but remain concerned about the impermanence of information on a hard drive compared to a book on a shelf. And the shift to digital storage is important beyond the digitization of physical records.
A huge number of today’s records are produced electronically. People communicate over email and text, not through letters. News is published online, and many organizations do not have a print product. You can find large atlases from many decades ago in local historical societies, but today we use maps available online. Even two decades ago, obituaries could be found in the local newspaper, but today they are published on the web.
Despite their increasing prevalence, the storage of internet records is still a significant challenge facing local historical societies.
Elementary school students are told that what they post on the internet is forever. While the lesson is an important one, many significant historical documents posted on the internet are stunningly ephemeral. If an organization goes under, its website may be taken down and its digital archives wiped. Old articles are sometimes deleted from websites. A local government can remove a post from its website or, simply for lack of oversight, mistakenly delete documents that seem outdated but have historical value.
Website storage requires specific archiving practices, and even some large organizations have struggled to adapt to the increasing use of the internet as a source of records. The legality of storing webpages is still in question, and the enormous volume of information produced daily can make the decision of what to store even more difficult (though this is somewhat offset by the lower cost of online storage).
The Internet Archive is a nonprofit devoted to “archiving the Internet itself.” Many national libraries, in some way, use the Wayback Machine, the nonprofit’s web crawler and archive, which contains over 588 billion webpages. Some historical societies have practices for storing internet records, such as the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan, Alaska, which downloads PDFs of articles published by the local radio station. Most, however, do not have robust storage practices for internet records. The Wayback Machine may be a good place to start, as it is free to use and seemingly in no danger of disappearing.
Local historical societies have integrated technology before, and they must do so again to continue preserving their communities’ most relevant records. In the process, they can take advantage of the possibilities of technology, from increased storage space to greater access.