In a recent Wall Street Journal piece on the digital Einstein Papers Project, Walter Isaacson, waxed poetical about the “tingling inspiration of seeing original documents.” Every day I am lucky to witness that “tingling” in the Rotunda of the National Archives as visitors stand in line to be in the presence of the Charters of Freedom. On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 9,000 people stood in line for a weekend display of the original document. Across the country in our many facilities, ordinary citizens get to examine original records in their family history journeys, researchers use originals to track down evidence, and our government is held accountable for its action by review of the records of decisions made or not made.
Isaacson is no Luddite! He understands the value of digital access. “…my brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures.” And he cites our Founders Online as an exemplar. The ability to search across the papers of six Founders, including early access to unpublished letters, has already proven to be a great boon to historical research.
“Artwork: ‘Albert Einstein’ Artist: Elin Waite” National Archives Identifier 6343429
I, like Isaacson, “…hope that archives will remain inspiring places to visit and to meet people with like-minded passions. They can blend the virtual world and physical space to become 21st-century museums for the mind.” With more than 12 billion pieces of paper and 42 million photographs –and a goal of digitizing everything–the National Archives will long blend the physical and virtual worlds. And I am also convinced that “tingling inspiration” can be achieved in seeing for the first time a piece of history recorded in a digital format.
What a great time to be in the archives and library business!