Microfilm and digital copies of records are wonderful in that they provide access to records to individuals who may otherwise not have access. These reproductions also help reduce wear and tear on the original records. Discussions of the limitations of microfilm and digital copies tends to focus on:
- poor quality of image
- missing records
- organization of the materials before digitization or microfilming
Concerns on the finding aids sometimes created for these records by publishers (generally of digital versions of the records) tend to focus on:
- incomplete indexing
- shoddy indexing
All of these concerns are valid. All of these concerns impact how researchers search and interpret these digital materials. There is one concern about using these reproductions that I rarely see addressed. That concern centers on how much researchers understand the original creation and organization of the records.
While everyone cannot use original copies of records (for a variety of reasons), those who have used originals are at an advantage over those who use only microfilm or digital reproductions–particularly if the users of materials in alternate formats fail to learn about the originals.
When one uses the originals, it is easier to see the filing structure and organization of the documents. That helps researchers find better workarounds for the concerns mentioned above. It is easier to understand how filmings could be off when one has seen the actual records or at least understands the recordkeeping process. If a researcher has never seen original records or does not understand the original structure of the records, certain aspects of the records may seem confusing. Researchers are also better equipped to use the records and locate them if they understand the process that created the records.
Just searching an index and not finding it or quickly looking through a set of images with no luck may not be all it takes. Find out all you can about the original records. What you are looking for may be in there.