Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why researchers matter

Researchers are part of our research institutions.  They are there, whether on their own volition or by proxy to seek some data in the holdings.  They are as much a part of the institution as the books, papers, manuscripts and artifacts they come to use and experience for research and enjoyment.  Without the researching public, there would be no need for the repositories themselves. In our society, we don't save the ephemera of our past simply for its own sake; we do it because there is a desire to have the data and experience of the people who lived before us available for any number of reasons.

Access and customer-service are just as important as preservation and conservation.  Even with the spread of digitization, as everything slowly gets scanned, you can't deny the human desire to know, to see, to touch an object to verify its existence.  When anything can be faked, we just will really never know if these things are 'for-real' unless we can see them and know for sure.  Looking at facsimiles or even 3D renderings isn't enough.  Why are the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives when they have been printed and reprinted like the bible?  Why do researchers still demand to see the Roswell material, or any number of artifacts?  Facsimiles and reproductions, no matter how sophisticated, just aren't fully adequate to fulfill the primal need to see and feel a physically tangible object.

It is also unreasonable to suggest that the curious citizen-researcher become an historian or archivist to gain access to items on a tangible level.  Down the road, the citizen-researcher will still come knocking on the door of the old "paper archivist" to see the lone curator of the stacks when the digital world far out strips the physical one.  There will still be the metaphysical need and undeniable right, to know, see and touch.

Hopefully, in the future, there will still be repositories to hold the objects and documents of our history and culture. Only by connecting one-on-one, face-to-face with on-site researchers will institutions and records repositories be able to justify their existence.  They can do this by improving customer-service, bringing it up to a level equal with conservation and custodial responsibility.  If our institutions can't connect with the researchers who are physically present, then we should just replace archivists and curators with information-technology experts and just lock the doors.