The 1980s ad slogan suggested that the quality of recording tape being produced by Memorex could make it hard to distinguish between a live performance and a recording.  While such an aspiration for quality is admirable, for those of us interested in the issue of authenticity, not being able to distinguish the real from the copy can be disconcerting.  Museums have to be wary about forgeries, and archives are careful to trace provenance in order to insure that records are authentic.  With the advent of the photocopier, it became simple to make a replica of a document; the facsimile also incorporates into its name an indication that a fax is a copy of a document.  With these analog producers of copies, it was fairly easy to determine which version was the original and which were copies.  With born-digital materials, authenticity is much more complicated to parse.  There are simple technical solutions like checksums that can guarantee that the file I have today is the same one as the file I received from a  donor two years ago.  But from a records retention standpoint, the ease with which exact digital copies of files can be generated — and attached to an email or copied onto flash drives or stored in the cloud — makes it quite complicated to determine which version of a file should serve as the record copy.

The development of affordable 3D printing may not have much direct impact on archives, which do not tend to collect as many three-dimensional objects, but it is sure to change the landscape for museums.  Rather than fearing the possibility of counterfeit items being produced, the Smithsonian Institution has chosen to embrace this new technology as a form of outreach.  As reported in an Associated Press article this week, the Smithsonian is embarking on an initiative to scan objects from its collections — thus far including items such as the Wright brothers’ first airplane and casts of president Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War.  These scans can be viewed online through the Smithsonian’s 3D viewer, where objects can be browsed individually or viewed in designed tours.  Files can also be downloaded to create replicas of these objects on a 3D printer.  The Smithsonian provides these downloadable files as an outreach effort and trusts that the public will use them for educational purposes rather than more nefarious ones.  It will be interesting to see whether our collective better angels hold more sway, and it will also be intriguing to see whether 3D imaging becomes as ubiquitous as document scanning or whether the drive to provide 3D representations creates a divide between the institutions with the financial and technical wherewithal to embark on a 3D imaging program and those without.

Advertisements