Part II Addendum: Technology as an impetus for collaboration. Sound familiar?

Sorry for dropping the ball on this discussion. Things got a little hectic for a few weeks. But I’m going to try to wrap this book up and move on to some exciting and surprising announcements for future readings!

But first, a clever person pointed out to me that I hadn’t noted–and apparently no one else did either–one interesting aspect of the discussion about the work of archivists in Part II: the way that Photostat machines affected the way archives viewed themselves and worked with each other. As with other parts of the book, I think we can see similarities here between the past and recent history. In this case how technology–in our case digitization–has affected archives. Here’s the relevant section of the text:

In addition to wrestling with archival policies, the historical societies also had to adjust to significant technological changes. Shortly after 1910, the larger historical societies began to purchase Photostat machines to preserve some materials and to allow for exchanges of materials with other institutions. Not to be confused with the photocopiers of today, the original Photostat machines filled a small room, required specially trained operators, and used relatively expensive supplies. But the machines could take documents of almost any size and make a picture (in a rather cumbersome two-stage process) that could be distributed to scholars and other institutions.  . . .

The introduction of the the Photostat machine marked a significant change for the societies and archival organizations, transforming them from relatively isolated warehouses of materials into organizations that had a kind of historical currency that could be exchanged with other archives or converted into a source of revenue from history researchers. Many of the societies had already developed the necessary institutional apparatus to share books and printed materials in their collections, but this significantly expanded the range of material relationships. The “New and Notes” section of the American Historical Review charted the acquisition of these machines at historical organizations over the next two decades with some enthusiasm, starting with a report from the Library of Congress in 1912 reporting that it could “supply photographic copies of manuscripts, maps, rare printed pieces, etc., at a very cheap rate.” By 1918, such reports became increasingly common in the Review.

A group of societies and archives in the West quickly took advantage of this new tool to start purchasing copies of materials from the federal government that were true representations of original documents about their states. In 1915, a group of societies in five states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois) commissioned a historian in Washington, DC, to identify and then arrange copies of documents related to their states. And societies began to develop networks to exchange and purchase Photostat copies of documents and newspapers that existed at one of their peers. Quaife noted a fundamental change in behavior among the societies, which had previously been crushed by “the absence of a sufficiently strong get-together spirit” and “the lack on the part of any public institution of the necessary photostatic equipment .” In its place, he detected a new spirit of collaboration emerging among the historical organizations. [104-5]

Do you think digitization had a similar effect on the way archives viewed themselves and their relationship with researchers? Did early digitization efforts–and current ones too–increase collaboration between repositories?


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