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Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Six -- Deciding what to Preserve

In the years before computers became ubiquitous, we relied on either copying out the information by hand or eventually copy machines. I remember all sorts of copy methods including the Thermo-fax and Verifax. I also remember seeing my first Xerox copy machine in the University of Utah Library in 1966. Here is a short summary of the development of the Xerox photocopier from an article on entitled, "Making Copies."
Remarkably, xerography was conceived by one person— Chester Carlson, a shy, soft-spoken patent attorney, who grew up in almost unspeakable poverty and worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology. He made his discovery in solitude in 1937 and offered it to more than 20 major corporations, among them IBM, General Electric, Eastman Kodak and RCA. All of them turned him down, expressing what he later called “an enthusiastic lack of interest” and thereby passing up the opportunity to manufacture what Fortune magazine would describe as “the most successful product ever marketed in America.” 
Carlson’s invention was indeed a commercial triumph. Essentially overnight, people began making copies at a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than anyone had believed possible. And the rate is still growing. In fact, most documents handled by a typical American office worker today are produced xerographically, either on copiers manufactured by Xerox and its competitors or on laser printers, which employ the same process (and were invented, in the 1970s, by a Xerox researcher). This year, the world will produce more than three trillion xerographic copies and laser-printed pages—about 500 for every human on earth.
You might want to read that entire article, it gives you some interesting perspectives on how photocopies came to be one of the most common products in the world.

As a result of the general availability of the technology, some genealogists have amassed huge files of photocopies. Because of the proliferation of photocopies, it is time for me to write about the issue of an original vs. a copy and from that, deciding what to preserve.

What is an original?

As I have briefly mentioned in a previous post before copy machines became available to everyone, Courts required all documents such as contracts and deeds to be presented in the form of the original, signed document. Sometimes, the major issue of the lawsuit became whether or not the document presented to the Court was "the" original. Slowly, over the years, the requirement to provide the Court with "original" documents disappeared. Now, why I repeat this is the same process that the courts followed to abandon the need for an "original" affects almost all the decisions we make as genealogists about what to preserve and what to throw away.

Let me start by asking another question if I obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from the state agency where I was born, is the document an original? This is a trick question. For the purposes of producing an original document in court, a certified copy was considered the same as producing the original even assuming the original original was available. In Arizona, when someone dies, you have to order up to a dozen or more copies of the certified death certificate in order to close bank accounts and take other actions on the part of the deceased. I could go on with more examples but essentially the idea is that original documents are both the first or primary or earliest known examples of the documents and also unique except in those instances where the "originals" were created or executed in multiple copies.

So, do we preserve photocopies? It depends. If the photocopy is unique and the only known copy available, yes. Otherwise, not so much. How do we know if a document is an original or a unique copy? We have to make judgment calls but I would suggest that if there is any question at all about whether or not another copy of a document exists, then the document should be preserved. One way we determined originals in the court was whether the document had an original signature. But in many cases, all we had was a copy and then we had to give extra evidence to persuade the judge that our copy was reliable and essentially the same as the original.

One important point is that we should digitize all of our documents, even if some of them are copies. The controlling factor would then be whether obtaining access to the original is possible or convenient.

What this boils down to is that every document has a different history and preservation and retention should err in favor of preservation rather than destruction. But if you digitize almost everything and then you make a mistake and an original document get destroyed, you can, at least, breathe a sigh of relief and know that the information in the original has been preserved.

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:

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