You know the drill…and the prophesies. Use it or lose it. Such clichés abound in the world of the historian, the researcher, the genealogist, and those dedicated to preserving the resources of our heritage on the local, regional, national, and global levels. We all know that historical records -- that vast panoply of everything from antique military muster rolls and diaries to yesteryear’s fragile wood-pulp newspapers -- are disintegrating faster than they can be transcribed or preserved. Yes, there may be a small army of archivists and sadly a much smaller troop of transcribers, scanners, and digital-preservation workers, but the enemy of Time (and decay) is relentless. And we are losing.
I agree this is alarmist talk, but not defeatist. Consider the devastating statistics of how many records are lost -- many totally -- every year, and the march of decades rearward is astonishing. One of the greatest examples of a “lost battle” is that of the St. Louis fire of July 12, 1973, which destroyed about 80 percent of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1, 1912, and January 1, 1960. Also lost was about 75 percent of the records for Air Force personnel with surnames from "Hubbard" through "Z" discharged between September 25, 1947, and January 1, 1964. It is hard to determine exactly what was lost in the fire, because there were no indices to the blocks of records involved. The records were merely filed in alphabetical order for the following groups:
- World War I: Army September 7, 1939 to November 1, 1912;
- World War II: Army December 3l, 1946 to September 8, 1939;
- Post World War II: Army December 3l, 1959 to January 1, 1947;
- Air Force: December 31, 1963 to September 25, 1947.
These were original records for which no copies existed.
Time, in the case of historical materials, is a “slow fire” as destructive as the quick one cited above. While we now have extraordinary technical resources and tools for preservation, we nevertheless face daily loss of irreplaceable materials -- the facts, if you will, that make up our history and heritage. Consider, too, how scant the technical staff facing this onslaught of decay and loss. How many trained and in-training archivists are there working to “update” your local and regional collections of materials? The genealogy section, for example, of the Huntington Beach Central Library may have some 17,000 volumes -- hard copies, that is, of books, pamphlets, and other materials. It is an exceptional resource. But how many of these resource materials have been transcribed or scanned into reproducible and accessible digital format? Where are the technical staff assigned to do this? What is the budget for such a project? And that is simply one example.
Orange County’s several historical societies are all staffed by volunteers. Many of them have only the most rudimentary skill sets for “this digital age” and archival preservation tools, equipment, and technical experience are almost non-existent. I have spoken to members of the societies. They are proud of the historical materials in their collections, but also state they don’t even have the resources to catalog their acquisitions, let alone transcribe, scan, and digitize them. And to the ever-increasing “online culture” that means the materials are inaccessible.
Private, corporate, institutional, and not-for-profit organizational donors need to be made aware that their contributions are vital if we are to make any head-way against the loss of our legacy, of our history, of our heritage. It’s not being alarmist to say so. It’s stating fact.
-- William Dean