Note: This column by Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune on Feb. 24, 2020.
New reporting about last spring’s devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — and, specifically, how the world-renowned structure is still at risk of collapse — offers yet another reminder of the fragility of humankind’s greatest creations and the stark reality that centuries of culture and history can be wiped out in minutes.
Several years ago, in spring 2016, I was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, one of the oldest and most renowned art museums in the world. I was there to announce the 3D digitization of the museum’s entire collection of 1,250 pieces of irreplaceable classical Greek and Roman sculpture in a partnership with my university. The very morning of our big announcement, a section of the embankment along the nearby Arno River collapsed, swallowing dozens of cars in a lot very close to the museum.
For residents of that Renaissance city and students of history, the collapse was an eerie reminder of one of Italy’s greatest modern disasters, the 1966 flood of the Arno, which killed over 100 people and damaged or destroyed millions of priceless works of art and books.
For those of us who were at the Uffizi — home to some of the most priceless masterworks of Botticelli, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian — the morning’s disaster again underscored the importance and urgency of the mission our university and the museum were preparing to undertake.
Like the 2018 fire at the National Museum of Brazil, which resulted in a devastating and catastrophic loss of culture, history and science, the fire at Notre Damesignaled a need to redouble our efforts toward greater digital preservation of our most important cultural resources.
Of course, a digital copy of a painting, print or sculpture can never replace the original. But it can ensure that all of this material is preserved “forever” and that it is made available to the broadest possible audience, including scholars, students and scientists near and far who might otherwise never be able to access it. In fact, as technology continues to improve it could even allow near perfect copies to be made from the extensive data obtained from digital preservation.
Universities and colleges are among the oldest human institutions. As the custodians and conveyors of knowledge for more than 25 centuries, institutions like mine are centrally positioned to help lead this preservation effort. Today, digitization and accessibility over the internet of vast amounts of material is essential throughout our academy. These materials include books and journals, which our institutions are most known for preserving, but also photos, paintings, prints, sculptures, sound recordings, cultural objects, video, film and scientific data.
Many universities in the Midwest have been hard at work for several years ensuring that today’s knowledge and scholarship will be available to generations far into the future and developing partnerships that will advance their efforts. To this end, in 2007, Indiana University joined with a number of other Midwest institutions and Google to digitize millions of our book holdings as part of the Google Book Search Project.
A year later saw the arrival of the HathiTrust, a collaboration of the universities of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance) and the University of California system to establish a repository to archive and share their digitized collections. The HathiTrust now has over 100 partners, including a number of Chicago-area universities, and 15 million fully digitized books in more than 400 languages, and it is one of the most important digital libraries in existence.
Furthermore, the HathiTrust Research Center, launched jointly in 2011 by Indiana University and the University of Illinois, along with the HathiTrust, is enabling scholars and researchers to fully utilize the contents of this digital library.
In 2013, Indiana University established a Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, an ambitious project to digitize, preserve and make universally available by the university’s 200th anniversary this year more than 300,000 of our most important time-based media objects.
The need to preserve artifacts that define our character, heritage and values is by no means a new phenomenon.
In a letter from 1791, Thomas Jeffersonwrote about the importance of preservation.
He wrote: “… let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”
We must now learn to do this in the digital era. How can we be certain that today’s knowledge and scholarship, increasingly “born digital,” will be available to future generations? What if the technology melts down? Or the digital version becomes unreadable? These are questions well suited to the ongoing preservation of knowledge work of universities.
Each disaster and loss remind us that we must act with a sense of urgency. In the race to preserve our most timeless and priceless resources, time is not a luxury we have.