In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’
Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.
‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.
If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.