Digital Preservation: How Technology is Safeguarding New Orleans’ Cultural Heritage

In many ways New Orleans is living, breathing history. But like anything else, that history has to be protected and maintained for future generations.

Preservation takes many forms. Museums can preserve artifacts, building codes can protect the city’s unique architecture, and then there’s the human element. Many of the city’s unique cultural traditions have roots that go back hundreds of years, kept alive by people like culture bearers who work to uphold and pass down practices such as second-lines or the beadwork that goes into the iconic Mardi Gras Indian suits.

Digital preservation is the logical next step — and it has come a long way since the days of microfilming.

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Rebecca Smith, director of the Williams Research Center at The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), said that it’s important to understand that creating “surrogates” of original material for preservation purposes isn’t a new concept. Archivists and preservationists have been thinking about and doing this in various ways for some time.

“The preservation of cultural heritage is important regardless of where you live,” Smith said, “but it’s especially important in New Orleans due to the high risk of environmental impacts due to climate change and natural disasters.”

Smith said that every time there’s a hurricane, collections like those at THNOC are at risk. Because of this, they take a lot of precautions and have strict protocols to protect physical items. Combining those measures with a robust digital preservation program helps ensure that records can still be accessed should the original be damaged or lost beyond repair.

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“While this isn’t something we expect to happen, we want to ensure that items can be available in perpetuity regardless of what happens,” Smith said.

For Smith, another extremely important reason for digitally preserving these cultural artifacts, documents and traditions is accessibility. THNOC’s holdings in general consist of more than 30,000 library items, more than 2 miles of documents and manuscripts, a microfilm collection, and more than 500,000 photographs, prints, drawings and paintings, as well as beautiful and unusual 3D objects.

Smith said it’s impossible to display or make physically available hundreds of thousands of items at once. By digitizing these items into a fully searchable online catalog that includes images, “we’re able to engage audiences remotely and increase access to our holdings for anyone and everyone with access to the internet.

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“Our goal is to digitize as many of our visual materials and physical objects as possible,” Smith continued. “As part of our acquisition process, all new or incoming items are digitized as part of our intake protocol.”
Given the substantial size of everything in THNOC’s holdings, to retroactively digitize items, curators created a list of priority items. Smith noted that efforts are ongoing and continually shifting.

Occasionally, an exciting new acquisition can fall into their hands. For instance, THNOC recently acquired a set of documents from Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, a Creole physician and newspaperman who co-founded the South’s first Black newspaper, L’Union, in New Orleans in 1862. His collection of essays and family papers are significant documents that provide firsthand testimony of the early struggle for African American civil rights in the state and were otherwise inaccessible to the public.

The preservation of cultural heritage is important regardless of where you live, but it’s especially important in New Orleans due to the high risk of environmental impacts due to climate change and natural disasters.

For Smith, an interesting part of digital preservation is the amount of people who work in concert to make it possible. Using the Roudanez papers as an example, she said the process involved not just the digitization staff but curators, registrars, catalogers and reading room staff.

It’s a multi-step process. “The curators initially became aware of these papers and pursued the acquisition itself. Then, our registration staff stepped in to handle the administrative and legal process of acquiring them and oversaw the shipping, which can often take several months and involves Customs,” Smith said. “Once the items physically arrive at THNOC, our catalogers analyze and interpret the materials, pulling out important details about the subject and creator. Then, our digitization staff and photographers work diligently to capture the items and build the captioning you’ll see in our online catalog.”

Finally, once that process is complete, THNOC’s reading room staff connects patrons and online users with those catalog records. It takes a village. Smith added that the organization worked to make the Roundanez papers available as quickly as possible for their upcoming 2024 history symposium, “Above the Fold: The History of the Newspapers in Louisiana,” which took place February 24.

With so much material and the amount of effort that goes into preserving it, digitally saving New Orleans culture will never truly be complete. People like those at THNOC to work every day and the day will never come when they can confidently say every project is finished. For Smith, the responsibility to digitally preserve New Orleans culture can’t be on the shoulder of one or a few institutions. And while digitization efforts are being replicated by museums and other cultural heritage organizations, this is a community responsibility.

Digital preservation also has a very real, hard cost. Similar to there being a hard cost to store physical items, there’s an equivalent cost for digital storage.

“Currently, we have images of 118,711 accessible items, and this number increases daily,” Smith said. “That means we’re using multiple terabytes of data and spending thousands of dollars each year on storage.”

The good news is that Smith said there is one way people can help preserve the city’s unique culture: Consider donating to organizations like THNOC, libraries, archives, museums or whatever is close to your heart. Monetary donations are instrumental to helping preservation initiatives.

“There are an endless number of people working in the arts and cultural space that need support,” Smith said. “If you can’t donate monetarily, consider attending their programs or support their work in any way you can.”

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