I read the April 2nd Washington Post article about the discovery of the missing patent documents for the Wright brothers’ “flying machine” with mixed emotions. As an historian, I am thrilled that determined archivists were able to track down what is universally regarded as a national treasure, missing – likely due to being misfiled – for more than thirty years. As a digital innovator, I see another example of celebrating “history saved” obfuscating the serious reality that our history is in danger, and I am frustrated.
Powerful digital archives reach and influence new audiences and are the key to needed funding
The way we access information has fundamentally changed and this change demands a re-calibration on the part of those who house primary source historical materials. In the past ten years, Google has reshaped the public’s expectations around being able to find information and form conclusions based upon what they discover through simple online searches. The difficulty is, of course, that most of our primary source historical materials are not yet accessible online and those that are digitized often lack the robust, item-level tagging that would make them meaningfully searchable in this environment. This problem is exacerbated by a fixed mindset that would suggest that primary source materials in physical or digital form are still mainly for the scholarly researcher. Researchers have been the core focus of dedicated archivists and the institutions in which they work for lifetimes. But questioning who other than the researcher might be interested in accessing these materials opens a world of new possibilities.