This supernerd might be on to something with digital archives for your stuff

Published on October 29, 2019

You never know when your stuff will mummify and crumble away. Just ask the Nubians, who probably would’ve benefited from a clean digital archive so later generations would know exactly what happened before tone-deaf colonists showed up.

In that vein, aren’t you interested in your own ancestry tracking and familial DNA? The history these trends explore is fascinating, but it can also be fleeting. The devastating fire at Notre-Dame de Paris and the many documents destroyed at Museu Nacional of Brazil are recent examples of the dangers to our shared history. These stories are sometimes reassuring but other times far more alarming. Such famous stories rarely cover the real loss of historical paper documents destroyed by disasters, wear, an overzealous deep clean, or failed attempts at restoration.

While you might not have an original draft of the Declaration of Independence lying around, your collection—whether it contains historical newspapers or your grandparents’ letters from the war—has value to you and to the future. Regardless of the subject matter, these snapshots of history deserve to be protected, and technology is key to guaranteeing your collection survives for future generations.

Protect your docs and pics (and no, TikTok doesn’t count)

Everyone hopes to keep their documents in mint condition. If yours have already suffered from heavy use or damage, you can have a professional repair the damage. Broken bindings can be restored, as can torn pages and faded ink. Deacidification is also available to save older paper from acid deterioration. Your tattered edition of a prized 17th century novel can become a work of art through this process.

If your documents are still in good shape, making sure they stay that way is key. Paper is delicate in the best of conditions, so even short-term exposure to light and moisture can prove detrimental in the long run. Your storage area or library should be kept below 75 degrees Fahrenheit and between 30% and 50% relative humidity. This can be nearly impossible in spaces that attract moisture or heat, like basements, garages, and attics, so avoid storing your collection in these locations. Some materials, especially color negatives and slides, need to be kept in cold storage to prevent deterioration.

Don’t forget to consider natural disasters when storing your collection. Is the area prone to flooding? Store items high on shelving or in another location altogether. Consider fire-resistant packaging for truly irreplaceable items. Use acid-free, archival-grade storage boxes designed to protect your documents. Documents kept in loose storage can bend, shift, and tear, so be careful not to over stuff boxes or albums. Always steer clear of materials that cause serious damage like glue, rubber cement, tape, magnetic pages, paperclips, staples, and rubber bands.

Taking shortcuts when storing and handling can do as much damage as a natural disaster.

Digitization is a thing now

Ultimately, you can do everything right and it still won’t do much against fire, flood, and other massive disasters, and unless you want to hide your collection away forever, very little can prevent deterioration. Accidental tears, oils on skin, and aged binding can all impact even the most impeccably kept collection. Protecting documents from all dangers severely limits how they can be accessed and referenced, rendering them much less useful.

Thankfully there’s another option for historical document preservation that ensures documents remain available even if the original is destroyed. This is preservation through digitization—a transformation that elevates a collection with additional technological capabilities.

By converting physical materials into digital equivalents you can display, share, and organize a large amount of data, create detailed search options, and keep the original copies safe from over-handling. Each document gets scanned to create a high-quality image, which can be restored in Photoshop or other graphic editing software to present the best version of the document for your needs. Then the image is processed using optical character recognition (OCR) software to generate a layer of text married to the digital copy.

This process is complex, so you might want it to be performed by experienced professionals. Archivists handle documents in a way that delivers high-quality image scans while keeping the original intact.

Get to know your archivist before handing over your collection. How the documents are treated while in an archivist’s care can be just as important as scanner size and settings. Be aware that self-feeding scanners or careless digitization techniques may cause further damage to the original documents. Professional archivists use cradle or split-bed scanners that support the book or document without bending or putting pressure on fragile spines. They also stay up to date with the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative, which is used as a guide for archivists and collectors to create and save quality digital artifacts.

Another benefit of digitizing a historical collection is using technology such as keyword searching and filters to view your collection in new ways. Knowing the breadth of a collection shows you the bigger picture, benefiting future generations of researchers.

Archivists customize digitized collections through metadata and tagging techniques designed to organize the data. This requires a high level of understanding and collaboration between the collector and the archival team. An experienced consultant can create a tagging schema to identify each item and make them easily searchable.

This methodology also benefits future audiences of the collection. Just because we use the Internet of Things and cloud platforms today doesn’t mean others will access your collection the same way ten, twenty, or one hundred years from now. Your collection should remain accessible long into the future, which also means that you can rest easy in your investment.

Farica Chang is a Columnist at Grit Daily.

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