How can I best preserve and distribute pre-digital manuscripts?
November 20, 2013 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I have inherited several memoirs and other paper documents produced by family members before the digital age made document creation, storage, and dissemination so easy and extensive. What's the best way to make sure these documents survive and are accessible to those who might be interested in them?

What I'm dealing with specifically right now is a monograph written in the 1970s by a deceased relative, a Jesuit missionary. (Though we also have other unpublished works in several different fields by a variety of late relatives: a family geneology, a pretty exhaustive survey of postage stamps honoring composers, etc.) Apparently for a ceremony around his retirement, he wrote roughly 20 pages about several key incidents in his life such as his acceptance to the Naval Academy and the circumstances that led him ultimately to the priesthood instead, and his experiences in China during the second world war - including fleeing Nanjing on a train that was destroyed by Japanese aircraft.

As far as I know, right now this memoir exists solely as a single, yellowing, typed manuscript in one of those report folders you get at the drug store - which we happened to find in a box of old junk passed down through the family. I'd like to transcribe and digitize it for a couple reasons. First, to honor the memory of the author, I'd like to increase the likelihood of his words surviving into the future. Second, while I don't imagine there's a huge audience clamoring for this material, it is a primary source and I think it would probably be of some - at least non-zero - level of interest to some historical researcher somewhere.

So I'm not entirely sure how to proceed. My first instinct is to transcribe it into an e-book and put it up on Amazon as a free download. That would likely ensure it remains available, but it's not really what Amazon is meant for. And I'm not sure that the sort of people who might be interested in something like this would go looking for it on Amazon.

Can you suggest a better platform, or an entirely different strategy that would better meet these two goals?

Since I'm effectively planning to publish these materials into the public domain, do I need to worry about copyright issues? I have no idea who would even be able to claim copyright to this work or any of the others at this point.

Basically, any advice and stories of your experiences welcome.
posted by Naberius to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: the best way to make sure these documents survive and are accessible to those who might be interested in them is to place them in an archival repository that can 1)physically care for them in such a way that they do not deteriorate, 2) catalog them appropriately so that information about these papers are available in various databases, library catalogs, etc. for scholars to find.

I would call the archives of the university or seminary your relative attended and see if they are interested. If not, they can surely point you to an institution that would be. ( e.g. Californa Jesuit Archives or similar)

Regarding digitizing - I've mentioned this on AskMe in the past; it bears repeating: digitization is an access strategy, not a preservation strategy. So if you are going to digitize it - and by all means go for it - just keep in mind that digitizing is a way to make things easy to use in our present digital environment, and not a long term way to keep physical papers safe.

If you create a digital object, instead of Amazon, I suggest contributing it to the Internet Archive's Digital Texts Collection.
posted by gyusan at 12:21 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you want is one of those fancy newfangled copiers with an attached scanner function. The one in my office scans through the top document feeder, which means any letter or legal sized paper (also some popular international sizes like A4) can be scanned quickly and easily, 50 or so pages at a time. The one in my office will even email me a pdf of the scan, which, seriously, THE FUTURE IS NOW.

If you don't have access to an office with one of these types of copiers, your local Kinkos or the like should.

From there, you will have a scanned pdf facsimile of the manuscript. The next step would be to convert the scanned image of text into searchable digital text, though I'm not sure what software is best for this purpose.

I don't know why you'd throw it on Amazon as an ebook instead of all the many, many ways of storing files that exist. It should be a small enough file to live on your computer's hard drive, any external drive you may have, in email, or be backed up to any of the popular cloud storage services. You could buy a thumb drive and label it FAMILY GENEALOGY and throw it in a drawer.

Re "publishing in the public domain", I don't think that's your choice. Copyright belongs to the author of the document or that person's heirs. The only way you have any control of the copyright is if you, specifically and officially, inherited this document. It being in your possession right now due to finding it in the attic does not mean that you necessarily retain the rights.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

gyusan's advice is spot on.

Get them out of the manila folder and put them into an archival document folder, which is acid-free. This may help retard further yellowing.

IANAC[opyright]L, but someone will come along shortly, and their answer on that will be some version of "it's complicated." The original author's copyright likely still applies, so you don't have full rights to this work, though you may own some rights to the reproductions you make. Again, don't listen to me, but know that it is not a simple matter to claim ownership of this.
posted by Miko at 1:28 PM on November 20, 2013

IAACL (but probably not in your jurisdiction). Still, it's not complicated given that Jesuits take a vow of poverty and therefore are unlikely to have complicated estates.

Suppose you came across a million dollar note inside an envelope in the same box, and the outside of the envelope was marked with a wax seal and a note from some unimpeachable 1970s figure (Richard Nixon maybe) attesting that the banknote was the property of your uncle. Who presumably forgot that vow ...

Who would legally own the banknote? That person probably inherited copyright also. Its just another form of property (the intellectual kind). And you almost certainly need their permission to publish. Legally.
posted by pines at 1:14 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Still, it's not complicated given that Jesuits take a vow of poverty and therefore are unlikely to have complicated estates.

This doesn't matter at all to copyright law. I agree with your final conclusion but a vow of poverty doesn't change anything about the situation.
posted by Miko at 5:37 AM on November 21, 2013

« Older Indestructible plush dog toys   |   Scary books for someone who's new to the "reading"... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.