Some of the hottest technological advances of the present and future are now focused on preserving the past. Recent developments in the field of historical document preservation have tapped into digital technology, high-resolution scanning, and even DNA research to conserve documents that are thousands of years old for what could be millions of years to come.
A Brief History of Document Preservation
Until recently, the most that historians and archivists could do to preserve age-old documents was try to minimize their exposure to Earthly elements like light, heat, and moisture by storing them in specially designed containers and temperature controlled environments. The 20th century brought advances such as photocopying and microfilm which afforded preservationists the ability to record basic images of text and artwork, but still left much to be desired in terms of recording historical details embedded in the paper and ink of the documents. In 2015, the process of preserving archival content has become an art in and of itself, with close attention being paid to preserving not just the content printed on the disintegrating pages, but the secrets held within the pages themselves.
A process called hyperspectral imaging has been used to not only preserve pristine copies of historical documents but, in some cases, to actually improve the visual quality of documents that may have deteriorated over time. Hyperspectral imaging has already been applied in fields including medicine, astronomy, engineering, and physics to discover and record information that is normally not visible to the human eye. The technology analyzes data using a larger portion of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans can see on their own, and can often uncover previously unseen data in samples that have been available for thousands of years. In terms of historical document preservation, this means that historians may be able to discover previously unseen markings on thousand-year-old pages that reveal new clues about the environment and culture in which they were created.
In recent years, document scanning has become a popular way for people to reduce paper clutter and organize their information by storing it in a digital format. In the field of historical document preservation, the stakes are much higher. A well-executed, high-resolution scan of ancient document could mean the difference between conserving an irreplaceable piece of history and losing it forever. Of course, historical documents require much more attention to detail that scanning and uploading a few receipts to keep on file for next year’s taxes. Historians and archivists are constantly on the prowl for technology that can capture the exact color, tone, and resolution of the original document or even restore it to its previous condition before the effects of time took their toll.
DNA Document Preservation
It may sound like a science fiction story, but in February 2015, researchers at the Swiss University ETH Zurich proved that DNA document preservation is quite real. The team successfully stored two historical documents on a double helix using a combination of DNA and silica technology. While the process is still far from reaching a mainstream application, the researchers state that the discovery may allow preservation of historical documents for millions of years instead of mere thousands.