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Can we save history?

New technology means that traditional archiving methods are becoming obsolete. Now that we’re in the digital age, how do we record — and keep from losing — the artifacts of today?

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James Downey Torah

James Downey unrolls a Torah from around 1470 on a table in his house. As a book conservationist, Downey runs Legacy Bookbindery, a local company that restores artifacts such as this nearly 550-year-old Torah, which he says is one five known in the world. 

On July 20, 1969, families clamored around radios and television sets while they strained their ears and eyes to make out the grainy picture of the man on the moon. Listening and watching closely, the American public heard astronaut Neil Armstrong declare his famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped out of Apollo 11 onto the surface of the moon.

Landing men on the moon was an iconic moment, not only for the U.S. but also for the entire world. However, even monumental projects can quickly come to a close, which happened shortly after Congress pulled the funding for any further research on the moon in 1977. The study Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin began about how heat escaped from the moon’s surface was left unfinished, and most of the data collected went undocumented. In recent years, there has been a new interest in locating the data to reveal whether the moon landing added to the negative impact of mankind’s ecological footprint on Earth.

But here’s the problem: Finding that data could take years, and by that time, could we still read it? The data was recorded on magnetic tapes that are aging fast, and even if the tapes are still in decent condition, the archaic machines that read them might not work anymore. Today, we’re looking at a race against the clock as scientists scramble to collect the missing data before it’s too late.

Achievements like the moon landing demonstrate how innovative we can be, but they also show how uninformed we can be. Human technological advancement has skyrocketed during different points in history, such as the agricultural revolution, which eventually landed us in a world where we can put people on the moon. But in the midst of all this technological progress, we might be missing a critical takeaway: If we continue to create new machines that rapidly make previous iterations obsolete and inoperative, we risk losing massive chunks of our history. How do we document and archive this progress in a way that withstands the test of time?

Rachel Harper, the associate director of the MU Honors College, has concerns about the digital age. “We are in a strange transitional period,” she says. Harper has worked in many archives, including searching through a huge collection in the Wisconsin Historical Society to find letters by film producer Elia Kazan for former MU professor Al Devlin’s The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan.

“To be able to have access to his letters, to see his handwriting, just gives you that immediate sense of history,” Harper says. “Nowadays, so much of that information happens on email. There is a worry I have, and that probably a lot of other people have, that we are going to lose that kind of connection to the past as we become this increasing digital age. Where are the archives of the future?”

You’ve likely heard that once something is on the internet, anyone can find it, and it lasts forever. However, some online items, such as emails, are now viewed as private information. “You would need someone after a famous writer’s death to do what?” Harper asks. “Download all that person’s emails? Save them? I’m just not sure how any of that will work going forward.”

Book restoration

James Downey prepares a strip of fabric for application to a book he is restoring. Most of the tools Downey used were tools that “someone from the past” would recognize.

The preservation of documents and artifacts isn’t a new concern — it’s not like our ancestors lived in some idealized past where they had a better understanding of the value of history. The real concern is figuring out how to keep up with the changes in technology to preserve the historical record we’re making right now. It takes an incredible amount of skill to be able to restore and preserve old scraps of paper we find, but at least we can recognize when we’ve discovered important information. Hundreds of years from now, people might not have the ability or even know how to access information stored on devices like the original iPhone.

At MU, the curators in the Special Collections section of Ellis Library take preservation seriously. Their job is to find and add ancient artifacts to the collection and make sure every item is properly cared for. Special Collections currently holds about 100,000 items, some dating back to 2000 B.C., and more than 40,000 of which are classified as rare.

These artifacts, packed up in protective boxes and stored in dark, climate-controlled rooms, range from ancient clay tablets to 20th-century comic books. You can actually touch fragile artifacts, such as a book signed in pencil by Pablo Picasso, and see the difference between the hair side and the flesh side of a vellum page, which is prepared animal skin, typically calfskin, used for writing.

Personal Bible

The Special Collections department at MU’s Ellis Library commissioned James Downey to restore a 600-year-old personal Bible. The Bible was written in church Latin and conservation work had been done on it in the past, more than 100 years ago. 

You can see people’s relationships with these texts — the page corners that have been folded down, handwritten notes scribbled in margins or tears on the spines from getting pulled off a shelf. You can even find places the printer had to repair holes in the leather from unhealed mosquito bites that ripped open as the animal skin was stretched. These details that give us a physical connection to people who lived before us are what we risk losing in a completely digital age.

Kelli Hansen, the interim head librarian of Special Collections, says the curators are actively trying to digitize artifacts in order for people to see them all over the world, but electronic copies don’t compare to the original.

“Libraries preserve human history and human thought, and it’s important to see things in the original formats to truly understand their impact and influence,” Hansen says. “As you’re reading things in paperback or on Kindles, it’s great, but at the same time, remember for the longest time, texts were these embodied things. They were artifacts, and they still are. And artifacts have history; they have lives. In order to remember them, to uncover some of the context, we have to make sure we preserve things.”

A common fear among historians and preservationists is generation loss, which is the loss of quality between subsequent copies of data. To avoid this, it is important to correctly preserve original artifacts.

James Downey preserving

James Downey cleans and conserves books for clients at his house in Columbia. “That’s a real piece of history there,” Downey says. “It’s pretty cool to have a chance to work on something like that.”

James Downey, a local book conservator, has worked with Special Collections for 26 years repairing artifacts. He runs a private business, Legacy Bookbindery, out of his white 136-year-old Victorian farmhouse. His workspace is lined with old-fashioned machinery. The sharp arm of the board sheer sits wide open, waiting to trim pieces of book board; cast-iron bookbinders “nip” newly glued covers into place; leather dyes in small capsules are gathered in boxes; spools of thread spill off the shelves; huge metal drawers hold stacks of tissue paper for repairs; and antique irons scatter the room to be reused as paperweights once the restoration process has begun.

“For the most part, I’m not using real fancy equipment of any sort,” Downey says. “What I use would be recognizable to any bookbinder from the 15th century.”

Although Downey’s workspace can make us feel like we’ve traveled back in time, some of the equipment he uses is rather high-tech. For a few of his projects, he uses a home laser cutter to repair items for clients, which shows how improvements in technology can be helpful even in a field focused on preserving the past. But even though advancements can have positive impacts, we don’t always need to push to replace old methods of preservation.

“As it turns out, a lot of times people don’t realize paper is actually one of the better archival solutions for preserving history, preserving information,” Downey says. “We have a bias in this day and age that digital media, or stuff that’s available online, is perfect. It’s good for saving and sharing information, but it’s not necessarily good for preserving it.”

Downey says people get confused by this idea of “saving history” when we think about it in terms of just saving information. Instead, he believes it’s imperative to save the artifacts of history. “It’s more important to me to save the actual books and documents than it is to just save the information that’s in them,” he says. “An image is not the same thing as the artifact. And unless you have a way to properly care for and preserve those things, they will be lost.” 

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