For the Morrison County Historical Society’s 2018 annual program, we have called upon the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University to explain its program to digitize endangered manuscripts around the world. Dr. Daniel Gullo, who serves as the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, will discuss the digitization program and the importance of preserving a digitized version of one-of-a-kind manuscripts when the originals are threatened with destruction.
Why do we care about saving the contents of musty, old handwritten documents? For that matter, why do we care about saving old books, old tools, old clothing, old photos, and old buildings? Why can’t we just recycle or dump that old junk and live in the present with our smartphones and apps and computers?
Because those manuscripts, books, tools, etc. provide the foundation for the content we access on our phones and computers. Because that old stuff and much, much newer stuff are evidence of our past and present cultures. This evidence shows us not only who we and our ancestors used to be, but why we are who we are today.
Manuscripts and other historically important items are under constant threat from decay, neglect, fire, weather disasters, which are getting worse due to climate change, or being tossed into landfills.
There are more sinister forces at work, as well. During war, colonization, and political upheaval, manuscripts and other historic material (including buildings, structures, and museums) and even languages are purposely targeted for destruction. The conquering force works hard to ensure total domination of the losing peoples by erasing their culture.
The Ojibwe of Morrison County were forced onto reservations and Native American children were removed from their parents’ homes and sent to boarding schools to have their Native languages and culture “educated” out of them. We have heard stories directly from those of Native ancestry about how their parents warned them not to reveal their Native heritage for fear they would be taken away. The effects of stripping this culture from the Ojibwe and other Native Americans can still be felt today. This is an ancestral wound that has not healed.
Lest you think we’ve grown more enlightened since the days of Indian boarding schools, these behaviors related to stripping history and culture from people continue to this day, both around the world and right here in the United States.
Our current White House administration has been busy removing information from various federal government websites since being installed in January 2017. According to Scientific American and other sources, climate change information “has been removed or buried” on federal government websites.(1) Women’s health information has been significantly altered or removed from government websites, as has information on the Affordable Care Act. The Sunlight Foundation is monitoring these alterations on its own website: https://sunlightfoundation.com/web-integrity-project/monitoring-federal-websites/#efforts.
Prior to the internet, the federal government shared useful and important information on its taxpayer-funded work by printing it in books and bulletins. The agency that handled this was the Government Printing Office. It became the U.S. Government Publishing Office in 2014 to align with the increase in digital publishing options.(2) MCHS has numerous publications from the Government Printing Office in our collections.
While it may seem easier to save a printed copy of a publication or physical object, there are methods for preserving digital resources.
When environmentalists sounded the alarm about the impending removal of the National Park Service’s digital document, “Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy,” we at the Morrison County Historical Society grabbed a copy of the document and uploaded it to our own server so that it would continue to be available to the public through our website. You can find it here: http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?p=6104.
With foresight and diligence, digital data can be preserved through multiple backups and constant migration to new equipment. If an original manuscript digitized by HMML is later destroyed, the information it contains will live on in some form, allowing people from the past to continue communicating with those of the present.
And that’s why HMML does what it does and why MCHS does what it does.
Please join us at MCHS’s annual program, “Manuscripts & Wine,” on September 8, 2018, to hear Dr. Gullo’s presentation on HMML’s manuscript digitization work.
~ Mary Warner
(1) “Climate Web Pages Erased and Obscured under Trump,” Scientific American, January 10, 2018, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-web-pages-erased-and-obscured-under-trump/, site accessed August 3, 2018.
(2) Government Publishing Office, History, https://www.gpo.gov/who-we-are/our-agency/history, site accessed August 3, 2018.
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2018.