National Council for the Social Studies

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There is a debate currently going on as to whether microfilm is acceptable to scholars and historians. Scholars say "No", while archivists say "yes". Archives lean more towards the geneologist community who are more focused on textual information, such as names, dates, etc. while scholars look beyond text, to pencil notations, stampings and markings, different colored inks, etc. Microfilm, the technology of the 1940s-1990s was the best way to preserve documents in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, microfilm does not provide an accurate representation of the document, leaving color out, as well as most markings, is under or over exposed, out of focus, making it unreadable. Microfilm requires a machine to view the document, and printing is expensive due to the toner and special paper required in many of the units.

Digitizing documents began in the mid 1990s, with products appearing on CD ROM, laser disc, and DVD. When the Internet became the new format, documents are now available as pdf, in zoomify, and other formats for easy viewing. Search engines make research quick, with database interfaces such as Greenstone organizing document collections, providing powerful search capabilities that once impossible, in seconds.

Our historical documents are in danger. Not only paper documents, but sound recordings, motion picture, photographs, etc. At the National Archives, as we search through the records in scope with the Lincolnarchives digital project, we are finding records that are deteriorating, text that is fading. In the motion picture division, the equipment used to show films of WWII, Korea and Vietnam are broken, with no avenues available to repair or replace these machines. Information saved on older equipment, or other technology such as floppy discs, tape drives, cds, etc. are in danger of being lost because the current technology will not read this data. Agencies responsible for preserving yet providing access are falling back on old practices of the 1950s still declaring that microfilm is preserving these documents, while libraries, universites, and such are removing their microfilm machines because they are expensive to maintain. Agencies are choosing to take the "cheap and dirty" route of providing access to records, by simply scanning bad microfilm instead of digitizing the originals at a high resolution to create a true preservation copy of the original.

After 9/11, Katrina, last year's fire in Georgetown, the fire at the National Archives facility in St. Louis which destroyed thousands of military records from WWI and WWII, agencies still are not preserving valuable documents in case originals are lost. In the case of the National Archives, they have no inventory of what they do have. Many documents in these facilities are being withheld from the public, declared "invaluable", yet no digital copy is being made available, leaving scholars and researchers without access. Conservationists claim that the records are being withheld in hopes that future technology will be able to provide a better solution to access. They claim that these documents are being preserved for future generations, yet no attempts are being made to provide the current generations with records from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.

The educational community needs to become more involved with their state and local historical societies encouraging those agencies to use their funds wisely, not seeking a cheap alternative which does not address preservation or access. By scanning microfilm, these agencies are not addressing the necessity of preserving the originals in a digital format, not only for access, but to protect these documents before they degrade, losing valuable historical data. History happened in "color", for a reason, and to preserve them in anything less endangers our future generations from knowing their history.

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Comment by Karen Needles on October 20, 2009 at 5:25pm
Latest announcement! The National Archives I facility in Washington, D.C. is taking the microfilm room, and several other researcher rooms to expand their gift shop and exhibit area. While researchers are in a small room, many times overflowing, with no extra seating, the emphasis is being placed on the tourist and making more money. Instead of using funds to expand researcher services, process documents, update finding aids, employ additional research side staff, and even expand their online presence with additional resources, very similar to the Library of Congress' "American Memory collections".
Microfilm is a dying technology. The Archives touts their "digital partnerships" with Footnote, Ancestry, and Family search which require computer terminals to access the documents. The Archives currently has five computer terminals in their library for researchers and approximately 15 computers in the microfilm section. Once the microfilm room is gone, all microfilm will have to be requested as a "pull" instead of the self-serve that is currently available. Since it takes up to 2 hours for a pull request to be completed, many researchers lose time while waiting for their request. For those researchers who come from out of town, or out of the country, time constraints as well as budget are impacted, since staying in D.C. is very expensive to say the least.
Exhibits and gift shops do not fall within the mission of the National Archives. Unfortunately, those making the decisions at NARA have decided that the mighty dollar outweighs the mission of preservation and access. Archives I is quickly becoming a Disneyland environment. All the records need to be transferred to Archives II, making that the research facility, leaving Archives I for conferences, exhibits and gift shop.
Comment by Karen Needles on April 27, 2009 at 5:55pm
I am really disappointed that Lee Ann's article was nothing more than a glorified marketing advertisement for Footnote. Basically what is happening, is that history is being dumbed down. It is like seeing the Land of Oz in black and white. If you haven't seen the Yellow Brick road in color, then you just don't understand what is happening.
It is the same with history. The color is there for a reason, and for the Archives to promote a product that is not adequate or acceptable in the history classroom, is a disservice to the teachers.
We are teaching our students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.
Genealogists are simply looking for names and dates to fill in their family trees. I have no problem with that. But educators are not teaching our students to simply look for names and dates. We want them to evaluate the document, to analyze stampings and markings, pencil notations, different colored inks, etc. In order to do that, it is either going to have to be the original document or a color digital image.
Comment by Albert Eydelman on April 23, 2009 at 11:56pm
I realize that, hence the laughing.

I never understood the need to do things half assed. If your going to scan the documents, why do it in black and white when the same amount of time it could be done in color?

If there was a way of explaining that to the news/media people, doubtful they would care but if one would report on it maybe people could snap these lazy cheap archivists out of their technological funk and realize what their job is supposed to be, saving records to the best of their ability and allowing the public access.

Not to sure how to go about informing the media though.
Comment by Karen Needles on April 23, 2009 at 7:59pm
Well, let me go paragraph by paragraph as to what Lee Ann is touting in her article. All of the images on Footnote are digitizing microfilm, not original documents. We as educators are trying to teach our students to evaluate documents. Color plays an important part in any document. Different colored inks, stampings, markings, and pencil notations, all of which microfilm DOES NOT display are important clues to analyzing the document. First of all, any digital project should be 1) preserving the document in its original format. Yes, microfilm had its use in the 1930s-1950s. But this is the 21st century, and any archivist, or technology saavy person knows that everything needs to be migrated every 3 to 5 years to keep up with the technology of the time. Footnote is digitizing bad microfilm at 300 dpi, which if enlarged on the site, becomes out of focus and not readable. There is no attempt to digitize the documents in color, to preserve them in their original format. Instead, they are sitting in the stacks, text continuing to fade. Conservations hope that in the future there will be a better technique to preserve the documents. In my opinion, they are simply keeping them in the stacks, hoping that someone in the future will take care of the problem that they are simply brushing off on some future generation.
She is touting the partnership with Amazon, with the DVDs on demand. Well, the American public is paying twice for the privilege of viewing documents that should be online FREE, since their tax dollars are already paying for this service.
The partnership with FamilySearch and the Widows pension records is another tragic example of the Archives inability to do their job the right way. Family search is digitizing these records at 300 dpi with a B&W camera. The documents are in color. The ink provides specific information, but unfortunately since Genealogists are simply looking for names and dates(text only) information, they aren't interested in doing the job right, so that these documents can be preserved. They may be of interest to genealogists, but sadly lacking for scholars and researchers.
She talks about how these partnerships are non-exclusionary contracts, but several projects have approached the Archives to digitize records in color at a high resolution (600 dpi) and the Archives has relayed no interest.
The images that are being created as a result of these "partnerships" aren't worth a hill of beans now, let alone in five years time. So once again, the Archives is wasting time and money doing a "cheap and dirty" attempt to show the unknowing public that they are doing something.
Comment by Albert Eydelman on April 22, 2009 at 11:31pm
I am assuming you saw the article in the NCSS (pamphlet/magazine?) called "teaching with documents" about the amazing resources of archivists and their great efforts to digitize. I couldn't stop laughing
Comment by Karen Needles on April 7, 2009 at 11:52am
Albert, I totally agree. There are people willing to do this. Unfortunately, it is a territorial, power play. You see, the archivists have had the power to decide who will have access to these records. In fact, in the past, archivists have pulled their favorite records and literally hidden them at their desk areas, giving them the power of information, denying it to others. Digitizing material takes this power away from them, so the only thing they have left, is to deny access to the records with this flimsy excuse of "better preservation techniques in the future".

The Lincolnarchives Digital project is being denied access to original documents that have been placed on microfilm because "we charge a subscription". Even after we offered to provide the Archives with free access and with copies of high resolution scans, they said they were not interested. It is quite apparent that the Archives is not interested in preserving nor providing access. They have forgotten that the documents belong to the public.
Comment by Albert Eydelman on April 7, 2009 at 1:15am
I don't see this lack of budget problem. You get a whole bunch of graduate or even undergraduate History students together, you give them decent scanners with autofeed and you grant them 3 credits for coming in for like 5 hours a week each to scan. lol. Maybe i am oversimplifying but I am sure there would be people willing to do that.

The idea that some future technology will come out seems illogical. Even if some future technology is able to save originals and cheaply make available copies online, that is not now. People need these documents, and betting on some future technology that might not even make it better or cheaper is wasting time and money these archivists are claiming they don't have.
Comment by Karen Needles on April 6, 2009 at 4:50pm
Albert, at a digital conference I attended, this was the key point that was repeatedly being made. People expect and need to have access to this online. But archivists just don't understand that scholars are looking for more than text. And so they are wasting valuable dollars digitizing microfilm instead of going back to the originals to accomplish two goals: 1) to preserve the document in its original format (microfilm IS NOT a preservation copy) 2) to provide access. Many claim that it takes longer to go back to the original and digitize then to simply put the reel of microfilm on a scanner and pump out bad microfilm copies. They fail to understand that if something happens to the original they have no preservation copy, just a bad xerox copy. Smug comments like "What is going to happen to the original?" echo even after 9/11, Katrina, the Georgetown fire, etc.

With Archives crying no budget, they seem to continue wasting money going the "cheap and dirty" route by scanning bad microfilm, and not addressing the preservation needs. Many archives claim that they are going to depend on microfilm and not touch the originals in hope that some future generation will have a better solution to preserving the documents. In the meantime, text continues to fade, documents deteriorate.

It is completely understandable that budgets prohibit Archives from doing all of the work themselves. There are companies out there, like mine who are more than willing to digitize records and place them online. But for example, the National Archives wants companies to digitize the records, create the metadata, store the digital media, and then give it to the Archives free. So far the digital partnerships are using low standards for digitizing which are at best bare minimum for today's technology and won't be acceptable in three to five years time. Case in point, National Geographics, years ago scanned all of their magazines to create the multiple cds. Instead of digitizing them at a maximum, they chose instead to scan them at 300 dpi. The end result was a poor quality, pixilated image. A lot of hard work, resulted in a poor product with a small shelf life. These partnerships have five years to recoup their investment. At the end of five years those partnerships are supposed to hand over the images to the Archives to do with as they wish, which includes selling them. And even worse yet, these partnerships are only doing microfilm, or scanning in black and white. There is no thought of preserving the original documents in their original format "IN COLOR" for current and future generations.

As far as the digital books, Google is working on a large digital library project. Do a search "Google Books" to learn more.
Comment by Albert Eydelman on April 5, 2009 at 8:44pm
I am working on my graduate degree in soviet history and I needed to look at an archive in Yad Vashem. Obviously, I wasn't going to travel there and asking them to make copies and mail it, would have been expensive.

I never understood why archives like these don't just scan everything. I used to work at a company that specializes in scanning medical files. The only cost would be man hours and the rewards would be ever increasing as anyone could just ask for the file to be sent to them. Documents could be delivered within minutes anywhere in the world. With the technology that we have, why are we stalling?

Perhaps I am going too far here but, archives are not the only things I would love to digitize. Books can be input into digital libraries as well. Don't get me wrong, interlibrary loan is very nice but does take at least a week. And of course, books and documents fade, digital copies with several back ups would be quite safe.

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