This post was written by guest blogger David McMillen, External Affairs Liaison in the Department of Strategy and Communications.

“Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” – Thomas Jefferson

In my last post I raised the question of the role of museums in a digital world.  There are some obvious answers.  No one standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon would believe that a picture or even a movie would be a good substitute for the experience.  Students standing in front of the Mercury space capsule, Friendship 7, in the Air and Space Museum wonder how John Glenn stuffed his almost 6 foot frame into that small object.  A picture of the capsule doesn’t capture that very well.  Clearly, for objects museums have a strong advantage.  Is the same true for documents?

Nearly anyone who has worked at the National Archives has at one time or another experienced walking into the Rotunda or one of our exhibits and seeing someone moved to tears.  Our exhibit, “Eyewitness,” opened with a document written by Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was walking down the streets of Paris in 1789 and witnessed the storming of the Bastille.  He returned to his room and wrote one of the first accounts of the French Revolution.  Imagine the founder of our revolution documenting the French revolution.  Just talking about that document sends chills down my spine, and it was a magnificent opening to an excellent exhibit.

How are digital reproductions different from “the real thing”?  That was one of the questions in my mind when I started reading Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together.  Her answers set me back on my heels.  According to Turkle, more and more people prefer the digital imitation or reproduction, to the original. To try to answer my question requires looking at two threads of thought – education and experience.

Some documents have iconic value.  Interestingly, if you look up the meaning of iconic, one of the definitions is “a graphic symbol on a computer display screen.”  That’s not the meaning I want here.  Another definition given by Webster’s is “an object of uncritical devotion.”  Whenever or wherever we display the Emancipation Proclamation the crowds almost overwhelm our ability to allow them to see the document.  That is an iconic document.  And yet anyone can walk through The Public Vaults and see a reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Every year over a million people pass through the Rotunda to view the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.  Those documents resonate with the public in ways few other documents do.  Every December we celebrate the Bill of Rights by holding a citizenship ceremony in the Rotunda.  The symbolism of that event to all and the meaning to those being sworn in as citizens is powerful and overwhelming emotion. Seeing these iconic documents “live” clearly has meaning and value.

Inside the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, DC

Why is education important to the digital v paper debate?  Part of what makes these documents iconic is that we have learned the special place they hold in American history.  What about those documents that are not icons? Putting a document on display doesn’t do much unless that document means something.  We have an excellent staff of educators at the National Archives who spend their working days and often their evenings and weekends teaching about the meaning of our documents.  They provide materials so that teachers throughout the country can teach the meaning of literally thousands of the documents that describe American history.  They don’t stop there.  They teach about the importance of all those documents sitting in boxes on our shelves to uncover new stories about how our government works.

During Sunshine Week (see the FOIA blog for an explanation of Sunshine Week) we put the Freedom of Information Act on display.  A group of individuals dedicated to the principles of open government came to pay tribute.  For them, that act is iconic and seeing the page the President Johnson signed on July 4, 1964 was a moment to reflect on the meaning of what they do.

I hope we move into the word of animated document exhibits on our web site.  I would love to see more interactive online exhibits.  I would not trade for any of those the opportunity to stand in the Rotunda and listen to the buzz of people moved by just a piece of paper.


2 thoughts on “Eyewitness

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this post! Having been present at a number of behind-the-scenes tours here at NARA, it is clear that nothing beats seeing the “real thing” for both staff and the public. It’s such a shame that the Rotunda exhibit is now made up mostly of fascimiles, not to mention the recent Civil War exhibit that featured only a handful of originals from the what is most certainly the largest and most important collection of Civil War records in the country.

  2. I’m old enough the remember when it was said that computers would reduce paperwork. I think some “paperwork” could be replaced by computer images without any loss. It would certainly reduce the storage space required to preserve them. On the other hand, as you point out in your article, there are just some things that really need to be preserved in their original form. One problem I see is deciding whjat can be converted and what should be preserved. What is seen today as something to be converted might be better preserved a hundred years from now. Then there is the old “what format” issue. Will the record be readable by modern computers a hundred years from now.

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