About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

At the Minnesota Digital Library conference on June 8, 2009, we were reminded that the past is part of the future and preserving the past advances civilization. These are very good admonitions to remember about the usefulness of our work. Since MDL seeks to utilize advanced technology to preserve history, a “devil’s advocate” question occured to me:

To advance civilization must we use advanced technology? Is digitization the only way to make history accessible now? Is there still a use for analog media such as paper or microfilm? What are local historical organizations experiencing in terms of consumer demand for local history content?

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9 Responses to Advancing Civilization without Advanced Technology?

  1. Fair warning dear readers—some of you might take umbrage by what I am about to say in regards to the usage of microfilm. Here it goes.

    I am baffled by those who think that microfilm is a dying/dead media. Even those institutions that have moved to digital reader/printers still recognize the usage of film. It is simple to create, stable, and can be easily replaced if damaged. Sure space can be an issue, but certainly much less of an issue than what it takes to store bound newspaper volumes. It is not like microfilms are the 8-tracks of the research resource world. Anyone who thinks it is, in the humble judgment of this museum professional, is beyond incorrect.

    To those who insist that we transition to all digital right now(!) I issue the following challenge: explain why microfilm deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of historical records mediums. Please. There are many of us who will be intrigued to hear the rationales.

    David – does this qualify as a “devil’s advocate” type question 🙂

    Reply

  2. tamara edevold says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Worcester. Microfilm is not dead, nor should it be.
    in this region, where we have small museums, some with budgets of less then $20,000 per year, have no staff or only 1 person, and can barely afford a used microfilm reader (thank goodness for grant $) making the transition to digital is YEARS away. we simply cannot afford to. microfilm is cheap, easy to use and replaced, serves its purpose of providing information, and can be used by anyone (mostly elders) who comes to our research room.
    truth be told, most of my “customers” would rather read the actual newspaper or journal before microfilm or any other medium. Furthermore i would much rather have researchers come to my museum or contact me directly for information then to have it available on the internet which i assume is the direction digital collections are heading.

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  3. I agree with Mike as well. I worry about digital media’s permanence. We know, thus far, that the film will outlast most of us. And Tamara makes a good observation about her customers (and most of ours).

    No doubt, as the generations behind us become more interested in their past, we will see them in our museums, looking for information contained in microfilm. They will expect digital media. But the best observation I have ever heard about it is that it is great for access, but still a major “if” for long-term preservation.

    I’m even recording my oral history interviews on mag tape. I know that will last–I’m not at all sure how long I will be able to access digital interviews. I won’t use the tapes for any purposes that I currently envision, but I sure will hang on to them.

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  4. Mary Warner says:

    Which, as a museum, would you rather have – a digital version of the Declaration of Independence, or the original document? Even with digital versions in existence, people will still be drawn to the real deal. As my co-worker, the Curator of Collections, always says, “People resonate with physical artifacts.”

    When dealing with newsprint, a medium not known for its longevity, it’s important to transfer the information contained within the medium to another format so that when we can no longer preserve the newsprint, we haven’t lost everything – hence microfilm. While I, like Tamara’s customers, prefer to read the bound volumes of the newspaper, I also appreciate having the newspapers on microfilm. A lot of money has been spent on this resource (also partially funded by grant money) and we’re not going to be wasting that resource by tossing it for the newest thing.

    Actually, the inherent cost of the microfilm is more than what we’ve paid for each individual roll. Someone had to take the time and money to film them originally, so this represents a huge expenditure of human resource in order to provide access.

    While my belief is that we should do our best to preserve the original version of an artifact, photograph, or document, even if we create some sort of facsimile (i.e. photocopy, microfilm, digital, etc.) for access, this also holds true for born digital items. Whether we’re ready for it or not, there are many, many things that are being created in the digital world (blogs, family trees, email, digital photos, spreadsheets, etc.) and we are going to have to figure out ways to preserve these items too. How many of us already have people offering to donate these born digital resources to us? (We do.)

    Of course, we traditional museums could just cede this responsibility to some other organization … perhaps Google, or Facebook, or small regional server farms.

    (David & Mike – Did I just up the devil’s advocate ante?)

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  5. Joe Hoover says:

    I agree with Mary’s concept that artifacts and information are two different things. However, I don’t think the issue is at hand is technology but rather redundancy. It is essentially just as bad to have one roll of a microfilmed newspaper in existence as one set of bound volumes of the paper or one CD-rom of the paper.

    There are two benefits of digital over analog/microfilm that I know of. One is that with each copy of a copy in microfilm there (assuming each time the source is lost) there is degradation. With digital you can essentially make an exact duplicate of each copy. The issue at hand is the medium used to store it and that the file format is non-proprietary and is not not compressed. A challenge but one that is beginning to be over come.

    The second benefit is what I talked about in the beginning, one of redundancy. It is far simpler to make digital copies and distribute them to different locations. Something copyright lawyers know all to well. 🙂

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    Mike Worcester reply on July 14th, 2009:

    Having looked into the purchase of a digital microfilm reader/printer, I will say with great certainty that it is the cost of equipment like this that is a major hurdle for smaller institutions looking to make the leap to digital. $10K is a pretty big chunk of change for organizations like ours.

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    Joe Hoover reply on July 26th, 2009:

    Scanners that cost thousands of dollars 10+ years ago now cost under $200. Businesses and corporations are the early adopters not usually museums. The move from analog/microfilm will not be fast nor cheap to start out with. The cost of the technology tends to get cheaper as it gets older and patents expire.

    For example, a major cost (and barrier) to small independent film makers was the cost of the processing of the film but $80,000 for raw film was chump change for a large studio. With movies now going digital that cost barrier is being removed and with the cost of digital video technology getting lower and lower we are seeing more independent films now being made.

    Need I even talk about the revolution in the music industry?

    A third benefit I forgot to mention is that unlike a microfilm format, the text in digital can be searchable. However, one thing to be said, is that even with search capabilities in digital, a well crafted index to go along with the documents is invaluable to have.

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    Mike Worcester reply on July 28th, 2009:

    All good and fine that tech prices have come down. I just bought a new digital camera and saw that phenomenon first-hand.

    However I will not budge from my central point that smaller institutions are being put in an almost untenable position by those who are pushing a conversion to all digital right now before the vast majority of us are in a position to acquire the needed resources to utilize those formats.

    The elimination of the MHS microfilm lab is but one example of that push–something that many of us have objected to, but to no avail.

  6. Cathy Walters says:

    As one who has worked on original news paper for my families histories,micro filtch and digital-I’ve noticed for my self the original was the best for me-and would still want them preserved.Something is always missing.But I have to also say,”Thank you to the Winona University for digitizing the Winona News Papers”!!!!!! I can not get there and can be held in my in box and copied easily-Thank you,Thank you ,Thank you!!!!!!!!! So each are vital and for us with no money or travel,digital is my solution to my problem,thank you for saving our history in the NEWS!

    Reply

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