The Importance of Digitisation

Most establishments or institutions have important documents or records. Some are more important than others, but they exist in every single entity, and for the most part they also exist for each and every individual person.

Some records hold far more value than others. For example, historical bank statements are not nearly as valuable as the handwritten minutes from the inaugural AGM, or the constitution of the organisation. Bank statements can be obtained from the bank, and for a fee, they can reach back decades. The handwritten minutes book is the only copy in existence i the entire world, that depicts the events of that moment. Without them, the event will be forgotten.

Recently, the National Museum of Brazil suffered a catastrophic and devastating fire that destroyed almost all of the region’s history. The ramifications of these losses will never be fully realised, however many of the most unique, culturally valuable artefacts and records that were lost did not have to be lost.

We no longer have the audio recordings of hundreds of dialects and languages spoken by native speakers who knew no other tongue — the raw material for the construction of lexicons, dictionaries and indigenous-language textbooks. The vast collections of cultural artifacts, which could be loaned to indigenous and quilombola cultural centers to give children the precious, absolutely irreplaceable sense of their peoples’ historical significance, have been wiped out. But we take immense heart in the messages of support that are pouring in from our indigenous allies.

The museum held a vast library of language, dialect and other irreplaceable cultural items. These items had the potential to be digitised, stored off-site or even in the cloud, or potentially shared with other institutions. For whatever reason, this was not the case. Perhaps they had not thought of digitising the records? Perhaps they had thought it could wait until other tasks deemed more important had been complete? Whatever the reasoning, there is no turning back the hands of time. Once items have been destroyed, there is simply no way to recover them in their original form, or in this case, at all.

Digitising items of historical significance will not replace the original items, but it can act as a backup, should the unthinkable happen. Fire, Flood, Mudslide, Theft, Accidental Loss… There are many ways that these significant items could have been lost. In the end, it was fire. Future generations will be able to read about the cultures, the tribes and various other points of interest online, such as Wikipedia or other websites. But they will never hear the native languages that formed the communication of these tribes and villages, the languages that defined their identity, that differentiated them from the next tribe. Future generations have lost the stories of these tribes being told in their native tongues. 

Digitising records, especially records of historical or cultural significance should not be something to be continually placed on the back burner (pardon the pun). It can enrich the collection, the history and the story of an organisation, as well as help other researchers from other areas to complete their stories. I have yet to find an organisation or a club that does not have some level of crossover with other organisations in the area, even if it is simply via shared members.

Archiving and digitising a collection can and does benefit all. Losing it due to unforeseen accidental incidents such as fire or flood benefits no one.

Bringing the Old into the 21st Century.

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