Monday, March 9, 2009


Anyone who has talked to me long enough is probably aware that I am an ardent proponent of digitizing old and out-of-copyright documents and making them publicly available on the Internet. I can provide any number of reasons for doing this, such as the distribution of information to facilitate and promote research, but just this week the world was given a startling example of why we shouldn't keep all of our historical texts in one metaphorical basket.

On Tuesday, the six story building housing the Cologne City Archives collapsed. This building housed many medieval documents, charters, and such, some of which were probably destroyed and all were most likely severely damaged. There was almost no notice that anything was wrong, which means there was no time to get anything out of the building.

Throughout history texts have been lost in this general sort of way. Fires, wars, floods, or just plain age and decay take their toll. The information in newer books isn't as likely to be lost since there are usually multiple copies in various locations, but older documents are typically the only copy, so if we lose that one then the information in it is gone forever.

What makes this particularly sad is that with the current state of technology, the cost of digitizing such documents and widely distributing them (thereby potentially protecting them forever) is almost nothing. Yes, there are some cases where any kind of touch is going to destroy a document, so the digitization process needs to be ultra-high resolution blah blah blah 'cause we're only going to get one chance and we have to do it right, but for the vast majority of books and manuscripts out there this isn't the way it is.

All it takes is a volunteer with a cheap digital camera (which can even be borrowed). They can go into a library and photograph the document. Then the images can be uploaded to public sites like Wikimedia Commons. Others can then stitch the images together and convert them to a PDF file suitable for the Internet Archive's Text Archive, or transcribe them to text for Project Gutenberg. Each time this is done - no matter how small or insignificant the text - it's a gift to the world.

Of course, key in this process is the library that owns the document in question. Some libraries are more than willing to accommodate such amateur archivists. The Indianapolis Public Library for example allowed me to photograph and transcribe A Noble Boke off Cookry. Other libraries though see their rare books as a rare asset, and that the fewer people allowed access to their rare books, the higher the status of their rare books collection (you can imagine how I feel about that). Sometimes libraries have their own digitization process, usually high quality, which since it is usually expensive is therefore subject to budgets and funding cuts and the like - a case of making the best the enemy of the good (and sometimes they only make their digitized collection available to very few, or sell distribution rights to companies like Proquest who charge large subscription fees - again, you can imagine how I feel about that).

Still this is one of the areas where the little guy can make a difference. If you have access to a digital camera and a copyright-free text that isn't publicly available, photograph it (with the owner's permission) and upload it. If you're not sure what text to digitize or how to go about it, I'll be happy to offer suggestions. Heck, even if it's just some obscure Victorian pamphlet on apiaries, I'm sure someone in the future doing research on late 19th century English references to bees will thank you. [Ok, even that sounds interesting to me - I'm such a geek]


kuechenmeyster said...

Hallo Mister Myers,

I don't know if you already know, but here are some news, posted by a friend of mine.

The archivmaterial seams surprisingly unharmed. Nevertheless it's a tragedy. Despite the hope of the firemen to recover all the documents unharmed or with little damage, there will in my opinion be great losses.
As for the rescue of the two missing men: One of the missing men has been found dead and for the other there are no hopes left.

Greetings from Germany,

Andreas Klumpp

Doc said...

Thanks for the link to the update, Andreas.

It's very surprising that so many of the documents have come through relatively unscathed. Hopefully the archivists will take this second chance to photograph and preserve the information in those documents.

Of course, while the loss of historical information is felt in a very small way by the whole world, the loss of lives felt very very deeply by those who knew them. My heart goes out to their loved ones.

Lady D. said...

I cannot agree more about digital archiving. Just think how much more amateur academic researchers might be able to add if they could get better access to materials. For people like you and me the world would be a richer place.

kuechenmeyster said...

Hi, I just got an email from a museum mailing list I'm in. Some Scientists are trying to gather all copies and photographs of documents of the cologne archive to build a digital archiv.