The Declaration of Independence was written on parchment. Parchment is writing material made from animal skin. The process to make parchment is quite involved; however, relative to paper or hemp, it is very durable. Parchment documents have been known to survive over 500 years and remain readable. However if parchment is exposed to heat, humidity or even cold, the quality can degrade considerably.
Another common material that old or ancient manuscripts were written on is Papyrus, which is derived from a plant from the same name. They were made in sheets of various lengths, most commonly ended up as scrolls because of their natural curvature.
Many old documents were written on paper, which is made from wood pulp or in ancient times, rags. Paper became popular in the 12th century.
Even though some ancient documents have held up for an impressive period of time, they are degrading over time, regardless of parchment, plant based or paper. Most historical museums or societies are involved in document preservation and restoration.
There are two elements that a historian would be concerned with relative to documents. 1. The preservation of the document itself, as keeping the original manuscript intact is as important as preserving or restoring a famous painting. 2. There is the content itself, which can be preserved by transcribing, taking an image of it, or scanning into a digital format.
Transcribing is copying the document by writing, or typing. Imaging onto microfilm is using an imaging system to photocopy the image onto film. Scanning takes the image and copies it into a digital format. There are many documents that have been transcribed numerous times over the years, the Bible for example. The Declaration of Independence can be found in any history book. Sometimes the transcription process puts the document into a digital format such as Microsoft word. However many books that are 50 years or older, were printed from a printing press with no digital record of the content. Once the documents or books were printed, the printing plates would have had to be preserved in order to make another printing.
Many of the historical documents were printed on printing presses, with only a limited number of copies available. These documents or books reside in libraries around the world. Many of these libraries are scanning these books into digital format, but there are literally millions of documents in existence that have not been transcribed, or scanned.
The biggest benefit from digitizing historical documents is that they can easily be shared. The power of the internet allows anyone with a connection to surf and search to find information. In 2004 Google came up with a goal to scan millions of books and put them on the internet. Google collaborated with libraries and actually developed a book scanner that could scan 1000 pages per hour. The technology that enabled that type of scanning speed was to develop an algorithm that would compensate or account for the curved surfaces of the open books being scanned, thereby eliminating the time needed to place a glass cover over the book to flatten it out. The scanning used optical character recognition to convert the text image to a readable digital format.
Google’s original goal was extremely ambitious; to have the contents of every book published available for searching on the internet. The benefit of this would be significant as a lot of documentation is not available on the internet. Researchers in the medical, historical and science field would be able to search through 1000s of archived documents, instantly obtaining information that normally could take days or weeks to obtain (assuming it could be accessed at all).
Unfortunately Google’s efforts have been weighed down by a number of lawsuits and legal actions for copyright infringement, profit sharing and access control. Google has settled some of the lawsuits and has agreed to a number of modifications, but apparently Google has curtailed its effort. While millions of books have been scanned, there are millions more that are not. It remains to be seen whether Google will settle all its legal issues and start the project up again.
There are other entities that are scanning and archiving books on the internet. Internet Archive has been scanning over 1000 books per day and making them available for public use. The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization and currently has one of the largest collections of online books and documents.
Digitizing documents, whether it is for huge global projects like Google Book, or for small businesses, enables the efficient storage, retrieval, searching, preservation and transfer of documentation. Scanning technology continues to evolve making it faster, less expensive and more reliable.
The following sources were used for the creation of this article.