How Technology Is Preserving Historical Documents For Future Generations

Technology is often associated with futuristic thinking, expanding human knowledge in innovative new ways beyond anything we’ve ever experienced before, but technology is also empowering us to preserve the past as well. Today, technology is helping educators keep history tangible and real for generations of future students because there is a huge difference between learning about history and seeing physical evidence about it.

When, for example, a high school history student reviews the historical facts around the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it’s something of an abstraction. The people and the events of the distant past are merely facts to be memorized for a history exam. However, actually seeing the unique engrossed Declaration of Independence — one of the most cherished documents in the United States — at the National Archives in Washington DC, paints a vivid picture of the events that altered the history of a young nation and changed the world.

Historical Collections

Witnessing actual historical documents can be remarkably inspiring, and, fortunately, not all historical documents are tucked away in museums, libraries, and private collections. Some historical documents for sale are signed by such iconic figures as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson and are available from the Raab Collection for students of history to enjoy.

Why History Matters

In a HuffingtonPost article about why preserving history matters, Steve Berry, the New York Times bestselling author of The Columbus Affair explains why history still matters in an age when technology is slowly pushing us to become a space-faring species:

“Firsthand, all across the country, I’ve witnessed the incredible treasures preserved within libraries in our schools, public buildings, historical societies, museums, and universities. At the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, I saw a marginalia written in Twain’s own hand. Inside the rare book room at the Library of Virginia was a book of psalms that arrived here on the Mayflower. In county libraries in rural America were the records of families who settled that land centuries ago, and in Smithsonian were the last remaining books of James Smithson, whose legacy was the founding of the institution itself.”

The Work of Preservation Experts

Libraries and museums face the dilemma of trying to make historical documents available to the public and historians while at the same time making sure that they are preserved for posterity. By keeping them encased where they are visible, they achieve this balance. Helping them with this effort is a  small, dedicated band of researchers who are preserving human records for posterity.

Although most paper documents are digitized, it’s still important to preserve the original—although, of course, working with original documents can be nerve-wracking because the preservation expert can’t afford to make a single error. New advances in technology make it possible to identify the causes of degradation and create solutions to prevent further ruin.

The Science of Preservation

The biggest source of degradation is oxygen, and so documents must be encased in a way that removes oxygen and controls moisture. An encasement will use a thick sheet of glass as the base. This is not ordinary glass, but a non-reflective glass. The encasement is then hermetically sealed and oxygen replaced with argon, an inert gas.

Argon is used to keep the atmospheric pressure. Oxygen has to be removed because it reacts with the atoms in paper and it also speeds up the rate that the ink fades.

The encasement is often monitored with a sensor to notify the museum or library staff if the atmospheric pressure inside an encasement exceeds a safe level for the paper document. The staff will immediately alert their preservation researcher, who then rushes over to vent the excessive pressure. Many priceless documents are preserved in this way, including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Examining Historical Documents

Besides preserving documents, technology can enhance historical research, often revealing surprising new insights about a historical document. Hyperspectral imaging technology is an invaluable way of examining ancient maps and documents without researchers actually touching the materials.

Just like the telescope and the microscope can enhance human vision to see what used to be invisible, hyperspectral imaging makes it possible for researchers to uncover a wealth of information that was not accessible before. It is now possible to see how, where, and when a document was made by examining the finest elements of ink pigmentation. This enhanced vision sometimes reveals surprising things, too, like a watermark, or, as in the case of the Declaration of Independence. Normally, human vision is restricted to the electromagnetic spectrum that ranges from red to violet, but with hyperspectral imaging makes it now possible to include ultraviolet and infrared light.

Preserving Documents for Posterity

Although documents are made of imperfect materials and degrade over time by fading or tearing, the situation is not as dire as it could be because researchers can now use some amazing technologies to preserve ancient documents for posterity. Technology is also giving us a deeper understanding of hidden text or other clues.

Consideration was received for the editing and publishing of this article

About the Author: Jenna B.

Jenna is a freelance writer who got into blogging in college and copywriting upon graduation. Jenna has usually written about topics that mean a lot to her such as health and medicine when applied to family and loved ones. Jenna is an avid runner as long as it’s not a marathon distance jog! She’s on twitter (she still hasn’t fallen in love with and doesn’t use often) @JennaFromDaBlog!

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