History documents the world we live in, provides truth we can learn from, and allows us to maintain a memory of our culture. Without history, we lose the ability to learn from our past and are more likely to make mistakes in the future. Most good history derives itself from original source documents. As such, it is worthwhile, where possible, to save the original source documents in their original form.
For history to be accurate it is necessary to know whether the original source documents are valid; i.e. whether or not the document is a forgery. Without an original source document, it is less possible to determine the validity of the document. This applies, or will apply, to documents created digitally as well as to documents created with iron gall ink in the 1800s. Having the original document allows us to determine the nature of the document in relation to the time it was created. Having an 1800s document in hand allows us to analyze ink and paper, determining whether the ink is truly of the professed time period. Having a type-written document from the 1950s gives us a better opportunity to determine from the typewriter ink, the key strike, and the impression left by the type in the paper whether the document is legitimate. From a digitized copy of either of these, it becomes next to impossible to determine the validity of these documents. Documents born digitally will require different kinds of analysis because they were born in a digital age, but the same principle applies.
Beyond forgery detection, there is much evidence of historic truth that may be lost in digitized images. There are stains, tears, pinholes, folds, and other physical features that hold information about the story of the original documents. Many times, these features reveal new truths or validate old beliefs. An example of information that would be lost through digitization is Hyrum Smith’s Book of Mormon. Doctrine and Covenants 134:4 tells us that, at the time of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Hyrum Smith read a chapter in the Book of Mormon and “turned the leaf down upon it.” This book is in the Church History Library collection and the folded leaf is visible. From seeing the folded down page, it is known exactly what the Doctrine and Covenants means when it says he “turned the leaf down upon it.” A scanned image of this book would only register the text, not the folded page.
There is also an emotional, even a spiritual attachment to original documents. It is one thing to read of the above account that, “[t]he same morning, after Hyrum had made ready to go—shall it be said to the slaughter? yes, for so it was—he read the following paragraph, near the close of the twelfth chapter of Ether, in the Book of Mormon, and turned down the leaf upon it:…” (D&C 135:4. Italics added). It is quite another to see Elder Jeffrey R. Holland hold Hyrum’s Book of Mormon in his hand and to hear him say, “A few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Safety for the Soul, October 2009 General Conference. Italics added). Seeing this book in person can have a powerful impact on the viewer. This experience would not be the same if Elder Holland were to hold up his electronic device with a scanned image of the book.
It is a worthwhile endeavor to digitize collections so that more individuals can have access. At the same time, it is essential that original documents be saved so we can verify their validity, learn new truths, and experience history.