History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

Fragments of the Forgotten Past

By Chiara Ziletti

On a quiet and pleasant evening of last summer, I was very busy saving the world from my comfortable couch, when I unexpectedly stumbled across an astonishing example of historical negationism.[1] This event has since prompted in my mind a long sequence of reflections on important history-related topics, such as: historiography and revisionism, methodology, ethic, preservation issues, and pedagogy. 

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To be true, it was not the present world that I was saving, but the one of “Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past.” Let me summarize the story. In the game, you – the hero! – and your party have the power to travel in the past in order to rescue several islands that have been cancelled from your present because of the evil Demon Lord’s schemes. After rescuing them in the past, the islands become available again in the present, so that you can visit them. (And isn’t the historian’s work a hero’s one? Indeed rescuing the past is part of our daily quest!)

In one of your travels to rescue the past of the game, you end up visiting the imaginary village of Vogograd. Here is where the specific example of historical negationism takes place. Long story short, in order to protect the village, the priest had done a pact with the monsters: he would lose his human form, thus looking like a monster from that moment onward, but as long as he lived, the monsters would have not attacked the village. However, unaware of this fact and frightened by the way the priest now looked like, the villagers want to lynch him. After you defeat the bad monsters and save both priest and village with the help of a young boy, the villagers realize what big mistake they were going to commit and decide to erect a monument for you and the priest at the center of the village so that “the terrible truth and their debt would never be forgotten.” All’s well that ends well, right? Not in this case. When you come back to the present and visit the village again, you find out that the monument has been altered. With the exception of one single family, the entire village now proudly believes that they were the ones that in the past saved the priest and the village from both the monsters and a group of bad adventurers (i.e. you and your party). How could that be? After visiting a little bit more the village, you finally find the original inscription of the monument with the help of the village’s children. And even though the adults of the village end up destroying the evidence and continue to deny the truth about the past, the children now know the truth and vow to do their best to spread it. Luckily, not all hope for the future is lost!

You can well imagine my surprise after all this. Indeed, after spending my entire day at the library on history books, the last thing I expected was to experience a firsthand history lesson in the videogame I was playing to relax. Both the historian and the gamer inside me were thrilled! The events of the game shared several similarities, for example, with those described in the 1990 Michael Verhoeven’s film The Nasty Girl and the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross, which was published for the first time in English in 2001.[2] By touching the crucial and hotly debated issues of collective memory and identity, both these works establish the need of a conscious and continuous thoughtful engagement with the past, even at the cost of having to grapple with uncomfortable historical truths. This is exactly what I experienced in the game!

Even though they are fictional, the Vogograd’s events in the game provide indeed a clear firsthand experience of historical negationism, which – I believe – is more immediate that any book or movie. This made me immediately wish that I could have the students play it before discussing about several aspects of the historians’ job. Indeed, a game-based learning experience with this story would actively prompt several reflections on, for example, what is the proper historical method; why forgery is inadmissible; what are the ethical issues that historians have to deal with; what is the relationship between history and heritage; why historical preservation matters, especially in relation to difficult places and social justice; and why do we need to actively and continuously engage with the past.[3]

The Vogograd experience reminded me once more of how learning can come from anywhere, even when one is not even remotely thinking about it. In the end, games are still one of the most effective ways in which we – sometimes unexpectedly – learn.


[1] With ‘historical negationism’ I intend here a specific kind of illegitimate historical revisionism in which the historical record is improperly distorted to deny specific events that took place in the past.

[2] Recently the case of Jedwabne has come to the international attention once more after Poland passed a highly controversial new “Holocaust Law.”

[3] There is an incredible number of readings that one could use in class in addition to the game-based experience. For example, when discussing about the historian’s job and method, Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History is an excellent primer, but I can also think of Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft. When talking about forgery, Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine comes to the mind first. On the relationship between history, heritage and fabrication, Lowenthal’s article “Fabricating Heritage” would be a great starter for discussion. Also, chapter 6 of Max Page’s Why Preservation Matters would be a good starting point for reflecting on why do we need to preserve and interpret difficult places. Of course, these are just few suggestions, and the list could go on and on almost endlessly. (And for my dear gamers out there, if you are a fan of RPG and haven’t played DQVII, I highly recommend it! Be ready for a 100+ hours gaming experience.)