In doing research for our (quickly!) upcoming Archives paper, I’ve been confronted with the problem of original documents vs. microfilmed (or, more recently, digitized) ones. As paper deteriorates, space becomes an issue and as archives enter the Digital Age, film preservation (in many forms) becomes a necessary part of the archival process. There are all kinds of debates out there as people voice their opinion and state their preference of one medium over another. As a historian (I’m trying to get used to calling myself this – sort of in an effort to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”) I do cherish the emotional experience of working with an original document. I like the musty smell, I like the yellowed pages and I like the old illustrations, font or penmanship. Working with an original document gives you the true feeling of being a historian.
However, I have had these moments when working with microfilm, too. Unless it is an absolutely beautiful fall day (such as occurred a few weeks ago), I generally enjoy spending time in front of the microfilm machine. I like sitting quietly in a dark room, waiting in anticipation for the information I’m seeking to appear on the screen (in the sort of slot-machine way that it does).
What’s more, I’ve had these moments sitting at home at my kitchen table, accessing information online. I was discussing with some of my archives classmates the sympathy we felt for old Sam Duffield when the online version of the 1891 census revealed that his wife had passed away.
*Of course, this is a highly romanticized version of historical research. Spending a considerable amount of time with any of these mediums can be painful (whether you can’t read the handwriting in the original document, the microfilm machine is making you dizzy or your computer is agonizingly slow because you have 8 pdf documents and 15 tabs open in your browser).*
I do understand the importance of context and I know that some things (such as illustrations or photographs) simply don’t translate on a digital form. However, for the most part, I think that the content is maintained and I would argue, against those who think otherwise, that the emotional experience of working with historical documents is also maintained. If you are truly looking for a connection with the material, it will happen no matter where you are.