Monday, January 04, 2010

Learning More About the Preservation and Utilization of Historical Documents

Working on an all out serious history project can get intense. It gets heavy when you start getting a look at primary sources. I've already described the learning curve I faced with the microfilm readers at the Wisconsin Historical Society. That aspect was just a technical matter. The process gets crazier once the information from the sources gets used.

I'm still running into some issues coming up with a hypothesis that works. Either the facts don't match up with the hypothesis or the hypotheses I come up with end up too speculative (the facts support it, but enough gets left open that more questions get exposed than get answered). I've accessed mostly just secondary sources or annotated primary sources; in other words, works still in print, found at common used books stores, on Google Books or at local public Chicago libraries (even though there's still the Newberry Library).

I've started entertaining doing some real down-and-dirty historical research. I mean flying out to Boston to look at more than likely handwritten documents (scanned to microfilm probably) by historical figures from the first half of the 19th century. I would have to visit the Boston Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

I didn't read much of the rules at the Boston Public Library (BPL). Then again, I couldn't find listings for the collection I would want to check out. I don't know if that means the BPL no longer has access to the collection, doesn't make it available online, doesn't catalog it online or they just haven't gotten around to cataloguing it online. I've tabled finding anything useful out until later when I have the presence of mind to call the BPL or to stop by and do some research.

I've found some potential in the Massachusetts Historical Society catalog. Can't look at anything scanned or anything beyond the title of collections or books on their shelves. Nonetheless, the potential there provides a last resort or somewhere I can check out when, like I said, I have the presence of mind and energy to make a call or fly out there.

And don't doubt it, I'm kicking my ass for not taking advantage of these resources while I lived in Boston. I, unfortunately, didn't have a good angle for the whole project, so no real basis for constructive research. Still. . .might've still been cheaper to visit those two places years ago to just transcribe the books or something.

I don't even know if I could have transcribed or copied anything from those source materials. The Massachusetts Historical Society has similar rules as the Wisconsin Historical Society when it comes to physically handling primary source materials.

I’m not surprised. After all, these are one-of-a-kind artifacts from our historical heritage. Even if photocopies get made, they miss the authenticity of the original. That original could hold some incidental or even accidental mark or something that could provide evidence of something unforeseen. Even the passage from creation of the artifact to when it comes into your hands has a valuable story.

I guess that's why at least the Massachusetts Historical Society has some intense rules. Let me rephrase that, has some strong state laws that dictate how people handle the artifacts and the information or data that the artifacts contain.

The most intense rules I saw at the Wisconsin Historical Society involved microfilm censuses of the state. Other than that, the Wisconsin Historical Society staff practically gave me step-by-step instructions on how to make copies of the data. I just used a computer set up to read the microfilm then scan an image of the microfilm onto my trusty flash drive. None of that information became useful, however.

Things get serious at the Massachusetts Historical Society, though. I need to look at their rules (and laws) a little more and probably talk to staff there. Nonetheless, they require official, written requests and permission granted to do anything other than to look at the materials there. This process is required to make/get copies and to quote and cite materials, above and beyond having copies available.

A lot of academic questions pop up for me here. I hardly know where to begin. Maybe I'll start with who are these rules and laws protecting?

I can understand why they want people to be careful with the materials, themselves. We don't want to lose the evidence of the past and history. We use the information on those materials as a foundation to the historical stories we create. We use those materials to understand the world better. Losing those materials would mean losing part of our story and also losing the chance to understand pieces of our human condition.

These invaluable treasures have spiritual value worth more than our homes or our investment portfolio. Even with the material goods that provide us with peace of mind and affluence, we can feel empty and without meaning. Historical artifacts can help fill that void of meaninglessness left by material possessions.

But what interest does controlling the dissemination of this information serve? The State and Government?

Not likely. I wouldn't think that a state or government would make "dangerous" information available at a historical society, in the first place, if the State or Government would want to have total control over the hearts and minds of its citizens.

The survival of the Historical Society, itself? I don't really think of historical societies as for-profit organizations, but they need money like anyone else to survive. The same thing goes for the people who work at historical societies.

Getting money at one of these organizations can be more difficult than at for-profit organizations and require justification to donors, boards of directors and the government that give them grants and other funding. Overall, digitizing or making the information easy to access might eventually make historical societies obsolete. Once no one needs a historical society, there goes the funding and the jobs.

A lot of the material texts are gifts from a donor. Some people even lend the texts and materials to historical societies. Conditions can probably come with the use of those materials, explicit and implicit, that, if not honored, could lead to the material being yanked.

Maybe the lender/donor has a sense of privacy that allows them to make materials available for people who want to put effort to get the information, but they don't people to get easy access by going to their local library or bookstore.

Maybe the material lent by a person tells the story of their family’s past. Could the story paint a bad picture of the family? Could embarrassment come to the family or the person the historical matter is about? The information on the paper or the microfilm could leak fairly confidential information that could be used to hurt a family.

In that case, I guess I wonder why someone would allow a historical society to have the historical artifact if it could lead to such detrimental circumstances. People have different senses of privacy and have different motivations for doing things. Who knows why someone might allow those willing to put the effort into seeing something but not the general public?

Another element might be the monetary element of the artifacts. Rarity creates economic worth. Supply and demand. Copying the information on the artifact and disseminating leads to the original losing its monetary value. Nonetheless, people like to value the non-utilitarian worth that we invest into objects. Even if someone created a million copies of something, there’s probably someone out there willing to pay top dollar for a historical artifact.

In the end, I don’t understand the motivations about keeping such a tight leash on the information contained and on the historical artifacts at historical societies, libraries and I guess even museums. I don’t mean the speculations above in any negative way to paint a bad picture or anything. I’m just ruminating about the possible motivations behind being so protective of the information on these documents over and above the survival of the individual artifacts.

Anyone out there have any useful insight for me about the reasons why a historical society would want to control the non-material value and information on these artifacts?

Links of interest: Boston Public Library, Chicago libraries, Google Books, Massachusetts Historical Society, Newberry Library, Wisconsin Historical Society