Digital Fog: The Future of the Minnesota Historical Society, Part 1

Every era has its buzzwords, words that promise a great deal but do not always deliver. Today that word is digitization, a word that has been applied both concretely and metaphorically, suggesting greater economy, efficiency, and endless promise. If the movie The Graduate were made today, the word whispered in the ear of the young college graduate would not be plastics, it would be digitization. Just as embracing plastics has left us today with a continuing problem of dealing with the environmental consequences of plastics, embracing digitization unthinkingly may leave us in the future with some dangerous consequences: a lost or inaccessible cultural heritage. And in the case of the Minnesota Historical Society, digitization may lead the institution to abandon its own important traditions and violate the mission it has been given by the State Legislature of Minnesota.

Despite all the promises made for digitization, the reality of what it can deliver does not always live up to the hype. This is especially true in the world of libraries, historical societies, and other cultural institutions. It is true that digitization offers a great deal in improving access to information. Creating digitized versions of printed books, handwritten manuscripts, and photographs made with film that can be viewed online is a boon to research. Having the documents accessible in this way often protects the originals from excessive handling, which extends their longevity.

But digitization of non-digital records is not preservation. Recently in a presentation on conservation of of collections, at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Digital Library on June 8, 2009, Robert Horton, Director of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Division of Library, Publications, and Collections, pointed out that if the problems of preserving two-dimensional records and books were difficult, the problems of preserving digital content is much greater and much more challenging. However, despite this knowledge, the Minnesota Historical Society has announced that it will abandon a decade’s old practice of collecting and microfilming 400 local newspapers from around Minnesota. Instead it will attempt to preserve their content digitally.

The newspaper office of the Aitkin Independent Age, around 1938. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The newspaper office of an Aitkin, Minnesota, newspaper, around 1938. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The policy was described in several recent emails from Michael Fox, Deputy Director for Programs at the Minnesota Historical Society, to concerned writers and historians, including one dated June 9, 2009 to the noted Minnesota writer Cheri Register (author of Packinghouse Daughter and other books):

What is accurate in the comments you have heard is the fact that the Society will be discontinuing the microfilming of newspapers. We simply are looking for other, more efficient ways to preserve and make them accessible. Perhaps a misunderstanding of that fact has lead to the conclusion that will discontinue collecting them. We will, but only in a physical sense. The two major metro newspapers and 13 other regional papers are microfilmed commercially. We have not filmed them ourselves for years but instead have purchased copies from these vendors. We will continue to do so. We are looking at a variety of ways to acquire the remaining titles directly in electronic form or scan them. We also have a major initiative to scan older newspapers for online access.

In other words, the Historical Society plans to abandon a proven method of preserving newspapers in favor of one that is more difficult and more challenging.

It should be noted that preserving Minnesota’s newspapers has been a longtime activity of the Minnesota Historical Society. Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor and first president of the Historical Society’s governing board stated in an early speech to the legislature that newspapers were “the daybooks of history.” He called for the importance of preserving “a copy of each and every newspaper that may be published in the Territory.” The Society’s library has been collecting and preserving the territory’s and state’s newspapers ever since. In a recent proposal for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to digitize portions of its newspaper microfilm collection for the Library of Congress’s Digital Library, the Historical Society stated:

The newspaper collection is one of the most valuable, most used and most extensive. The Society holds the largest collection of Minnesota newspapers of any repository, represented by over 4000 titles. The dates of the collection range from 1849 to the present and it includes daily, weekly, non-English language, labor, ethnic, reservation, legal, prison, religious, political and school papers. Virtually the entire collection has been microfilmed. Catalog records were created and contributed to CONSER/OCLC by the Society which was selected to represent Minnesota in the United States Newspaper Program (USNP). The newspaper collection receives intensive use from library patrons, for a variety of purposes, from scholarly research to family history, and serves users statewide and nationwide through Inter Library Loan (ILL). The collection is especially important because of Minnesota’s role as a cultural and economic center in the Upper Midwest and its historical significance in the economic development of the entire Northwest.

Preserving newspapers has been a contingent part of the funding received by the Historical Society from the Minnesota legislature beginning early in the Society’s history. A bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1869 (S.F. 111) stated that the Society in partial consideration for an appropriation of $2,000 would: “cause to be properly assorted and bound, their collection of unbound state newspapers; and should any of their files of said papers be deficient, they are authorized to perfect the same, as far as can be done, from the unbound newspapers accumulated by the state in exchange for copies of its laws and session journals.”

More recently, starting in 1984 and continuing today, the Society the role of the Society in relation to Minnesota’s newspapers was further defined in the legal definition of a “qualified newspaper,” one which is eligible to publish official notices of legal actions. The law provided that such newspapers would “file a copy of each issue immediately with the State Historical Society.”

These provisions are some of the dozens in Minnesota law in which the Historical Society, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit has been given various public tasks to perform in return for its annual appropriations from the legislature. In the case of the law regarding qualified newspapers, the task asked of the Historical Society is to be a repository for official newspapers publishing legal notices, among other things. It is clearly in the interest of the state and of other levels of government that there be a reliable place in which past notices and other legal acts requiring publication be preserved in an unchanging form. As a non-profit, non-state agency, the Historical Society would be free to decline the money it receives from the state if it wish to refrain from performing the tasks asked of it. Of course lawyers working for the Historical Society could present the argument that the law only says that newspapers must file copies with the Historical Society, but does not require the Historical Society to do anything with them. Perhaps the Historical Society could file the newspapers in dumpsters and still be within the letter, though not the spirit, of the law.

The Minnesota Historical Society has been a pioneer in the creation and use of microfilm as medium for the storage of documents. Here is a view of an early microfilm viewer of the kind used at the Historical Society from the 1930s to the 1960s. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The Minnesota Historical Society has been a pioneer in the creation and use of microfilm as medium for the storage of documents. Here is a view of an early microfilm viewer of the kind used at the Historical Society from the 1930s to the 1960s. Many better ways exist today to view microfilm, print hard copies from it, and digitize it. Microfilm remains an important and stable tool for the preservation of documents. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

However, for more than 30 years, the Historical Society has adhered to the letter and the spirit of the law and its own historical traditions by microfilming the newspapers it receives, including not only official newspapers but many other daily and weekly newspapers from every county in the state. The announcement that it would not collect or microfilm a large proportion of the newspapers it has received in the past raises important legal questions about the duties of the institution under state law. But it also raises questions about the nature of preservation and the advisability of replacing microfilm with digital storage technology.

What was not mentioned in Michael Fox’s description of the implementation of these changes was the problematic nature of digitization as a form of preservation. The problem relates to questions about the continuing use of particular software and the  longevity of the physical media used to back up digital records. As noted, the Society’s own Director of its Library, Publications, and Collections has noted the difficulty of preserving digital documents. His opinion accords with many other experts, including the Library of Congress, which has stated that the preservation of objects that are “born digital” is more challenging than the perpetual care of paper.

The possibility that digitization of newspapers could be used as a form of preservation is still untested. In 2007, the MHS received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work with the Library of Congress to digitize the an selection of Minnesota newspapers for the National Digital Newspaper Program. For the purpose of this project the Historical Society has been scanning and indexing a selection of newspapers already on microfilm. Notably, however, the project description does not describe its purpose as a preservation one. Rather, the project was designed to improve access: “Digitizing the newspapers and making them available online would greatly increase their usage and value.”

At the completion of the project the Historical Society will supply the the Library of Congress with duplicate negatives of the newspaper microfilm: “For each microfilm reel digitized, the Society will transfer a second-generation duplicate silver negative microfilm, made from the camera master, barcoded (LC to supply barcodes for all reels).” Clearly for the purposes of this project, the microfilm, not the scanned versions, was to be the primary preservation medium. Indeed a description of the Library of Congress Digital Library Program states: “However, a major program assumption is that digital surrogates provide efficient access to the content but are not intended to replace originals which remain secure and protected in appropriate storage.” It is clear that had the Minnesota Historical Society offered to supply the Library of Congress with scanned pdfs without the backup microfilm, it would not likely have received its current NEH grant.

Other agencies have raised questions about the whole concept of digitization as preservation. The Washington State Library in a site devoted to “Digital Best Practices” states that:

Preservation of digital objects is little understood and no one has yet perfected the methods that will assure that a digital version of any material will survive over time. The National Archives recommends that public records and permanent copies of documents be preserved in an “eye readable” format. Eye readable for the most part is still paper copies or microforms that can be viewed on readers.

Digital preservation issues are a continuing subject for discussion, as evidenced by the various presentations at the recent Minnesota Digital Library annual meeting. And it may be that the chances for achieving real preservation through digitization are improving. Digital archivists are increasingly using the portable document format (pdf) as a long term software format for storage, the same format that is being used in the Minnesota Historical Society’s newspaper scanning project.

But the reliability of the media used for the physical storage of digital pdf files-whether on cds, dvds, hard drives-is another matter. CDs and DVDs-which many people use to back up their computers-do not have a proven record of longterm stability. The safest route for digital storage is simply to keep copying and recopying digital records and store them on multiple media in multiple places, a practice that will certainly raise the long term costs of digitization.

Of course mass media of various kinds have faced preservation issues. Until the 1940s most black and white film was silver nitrate-based, an unstable medium that could self-destruct or even combust, if not stored safely. Nonetheless these problems were solved with the development of safety film starting as early as 1909. Improved processing made film storage greatly more reliable. Black and white film technology, the technology used to copy and preserve newspapers is now a mature medium. Microfilm can be stored safely for hundreds of years. Multiple copies can be made. It can be viewed with minimal technology. If you had to do it, you could even view a roll of microfilm with candlelight and a magnifying glass.

Given the drawbacks for digital storage and access there are cases in which one would achieve greater long term storage prognosis by printing (using printers using inks or toner with long-term stability) on archival, acid-free paper as a backup for precarious digital storage. Further, contrary to what many people may think, there are few cases in which it would make sense to throw away old film or photos and rely on scanned, digital versions as the only means of storage.

Given all these factors, digitization of non-digital records is a poor long term solution for preservation. Digitization does not amount to preservation except in the sense of preserving original documents from wear and tear. The bottom line is that by eliminating the collecting and microfilming of newspapers the Minnesota Historical Society is trading a proven, reliable, and comparatively inexpensive storage medium with one that is unproven and may in the long term be more expensive. For this reason, even if the Historical justifies its elimination of a program which the Minnesota legislature has mandated it to do, on its own terms digitization is not the panacea many would like to suggest.

More on the issues of digitization and the future of the Minnesota Historical Society, in later installments of this series.


Digital Fog: The Future of the Minnesota Historical Society, Part 1 — 1 Comment

  1. We live in an age of rapid globalization, where a sedentary American public hides behind empty Proven Principles, failing to know or care what came before them and preferring instead to rely on the mythology of media for a structure of reality. We watch history channel specials on war and violence, prophecy or ghosts, content with a story rather than a reality.

    So why should it come as any surprise that we fail to value our permanence. When our value amongst our peers comes from our adaption of the ever transitory world of pop culture, and where billions are spent on technology that is outlasted by fungus. Why should Americans care about their legacy? And do we even know what that legacy is and was, or only what it should be, a Dream?

    There was a time when elders were venerated for their knowledge of the world. Now, what do they matter when I can go on Wikipedia and have the culmination of all humanity at my fingertips.

    In our world it is not the story that is closest to the truth that counts, it is the story that seizes us, the story that compels us to re-tell and embellish it. Without this energy to propel them, facts fall flat, and microfilm collects dust in boxes.

    The Historical Society is caught between worlds. In a culture that de-values facts for immediacy, it is more important that I know something now from my desk at home, than that someone else might know something in the future. Our cultural currency is in rapid, transitory mythology, not in concrete, stagnant facts.

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