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Nonprofit View: How is technology changing access to 'real' history?

In November 2016, the Historical Society of Carroll County (HSCC) concluded an 18-month strategic planning process designed to create greater public access to its resources and expertise. One of its primary tasks is to focus on the digitization of its collections.

Since its founding in 1939, HSCC has collected over 30,000 documents, manuscripts, books and other printed ephemera; 5,000 photographs; and some 9,000 3D items. It is the Historical Society's job to tell not only the early history of Carroll County, but also to preserve, collect and interpret our community's "recent" stories.

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One of the greatest challenges for historians is how to document all aspects of a changing world in light of how they currently documented history. Until the advent of electronic technologies, documents, writings on a solid medium (paper, vellum, clay, etc.), were the primary resources used by historians to provide insight into various historical activities. These tangible materials were also used to clarify and inform the interpretation of three-dimensional man-made objects.



Technology was first heralded as a means of increasing access to information and preserving original documents for future use. The printing press, camera, records and moving pictures made previously uncaptured information (art, music, language, life events) accessible to greater numbers of people at less cost. Their addition to the research pool enhanced our ability to construct an entire story. History became multi-dimensional and multidisciplinary. However, at the core of the story was the written word.

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As these physical records are lost through natural catastrophes and neglect, the historian faces another crisis in accessing history. Electronic memories are replacing "hard" memories (journals, diaries, letter writing, postcards, etc.). More often than not, these new forms fail to record the genesis of ideas. Reading an e-mail document is not the same as reading Thomas Jefferson's hand-written notes on the Declaration of Independence.

Technology has created an abundance of information and preservation problems. The telephone, the computer, electronic media and the internet have changed the job of the historian and collecting organizations like historical societies. How do we capture this information, preserve it, make it accessible to the public, and determine what is worth saving for posterity? How do we authenticate these new forms of historical materials? In the 1680s, a Frenchman established the "sciences of diplomatics" to validate or disprove the origin and authenticity of hand-written documents. The techniques used included penmanship, materials upon which they were written, language and literary style.

However, digital-born information can be easily altered and copied. Digital technologies suffer from obsolescence. Transference from one format to another is expensive. Who has the technology onsite to read an old format like a 5.25" floppy disc? The Historical Society, in collaboration with other collecting institutions, needs to act more immediately on preserving the digital present or they will face a scarcity, not overabundance, of historical information. We must actively take a role to ensure that all aspects of history will be available to inform current and future generations in the decision-making process.

Gainor B. Davis is executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County.

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