Monday, March 2, 2009

The dangers of the latest technology

I note in the latest UK Museums Association Journal, in an interesting article on newspaper digitisation, that the British Library’s collection of the Daily Express from the late 1950’s is now unreadable. This probably goes for wide parts of their collection as they took the decision at some stage in the 1970’s to record all these newspapers onto microfilm, and dispose of the originals.

No doubt the laudable thinking at the time was that this would ensure the long term record of these newspapers, whereas the originals themselves were likely to progressively degrade. We all know how quickly newspapers do deteriorate partly due to the high lignin content in the paper (one of the nightmares for paintings conservators is trying to preserve highly valuable David Hockney collages which often contain newsprint).

But despite, we can be sure, assurances from the technology providers that microfilm would ‘last for ever’, the British Library now finds itself with the unenviable situation that the first 10 years of their collection that has been microfilmed is now unreadable, even when using the latest "cutting edge" technology to read the faded characters and "join the dots".

There’s no doubt that digitising newspapers makes them far more accessible and must be continued. However, let’s keep a set of originals as we do so, as we can be pretty certain they will last a lot longer than their digitised versions.

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