Friday 1 November 2013

What’s more important: Source preservation or source utilisation?

Around a month ago I was on my holidays in rural Norfolk (well, at the archive) and had a lot of research to get through in a week. I had planned my trip thoroughly and came equipped with hundreds of reference numbers with the aim of photographing everything I needed quickly, and sorting through them when I got home. There were, however, several key sources that I needed which were on microfilm.
Now, for those of you not familiar on how to make copies from microfilm, you have three options: one, use a camera to photograph the negative image of the source on the microreader screen; two: pay god-knows-how-much to get individual paper copies from the printers; or three: pay a lot of money for the archive to make a microfilm copy of the microfilm and then treat yourself to a microfilm reader. The third is impractical for most and, although the quality of the copies from the first two options can be poor, I don’t mind doing either when it comes to making odd copies, but I needed copies of thousands of pages and needed detailed copies. Thus I tried my luck and asked to see the originals to take photographs. I stated my reasons and explained that I had a lot of experience handling aged sources, but they would not budge. In the end, I took the first option and am left with a lot of useless photographs.
The aim of this blog post is not to (just) rant and rave about this frustrating experience. Instead, it got me thinking: What’s more important: to preserve documents for as long as they can physically survive sitting in a box in a strong room, never to see the light of day; or to allow them to be used and enjoyed by historians and researchers? Yes the sources will inevitably get more wear and tear (although not a lot) but at least they will be enjoyed and used to advance our historical knowledge as they should be. Microfilm does not give a ‘feel’ for the source, such as texture, colour, smell, material and size – so it is hard to fully comprehend how it was perceived and used by those who made it. For the original there is no substitute. Of course some sources need to be protected if they are in a dire condition, but on the flip side there are many microfilmed sources which are in a very good condition. Rather than looking at an inferior copy whilst the fit original is sitting in a box, wouldn’t it be better to just bring it out? Until archives have new investment to create high-quality digital copies – which will not happen for a long time, if ever – there is no substitute to seeing the original and no method within the current system to take abundant detailed copies cost effectively and practically.