By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
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American coin collectors have a wide range of books and articles to choose from when they want to learn more about our national coinage. Most of these are specific to one coin type, such as (shameless plug) A Guide Book to Peace Dollars, or a single coin that is either very rare, very valuable, very unusual or all three.
But those who want to learn more about historical events, or how coins were made, or the people who designed and authorized coins, have much less to choose from. Many history-related books are badly out of date and filled with errors and assumptions. “Facts” are seldom supported by original data and readers rarely have the option of seeing original letters for themselves.
Why is so much missing or hidden? Are there secrets form the past that would embarrass prominent people, or even the entire Mint Bureau?
The National Archives and Records Administration – NARA for short – holds millions of pages of letters, accounts, orders, design information and daily records, yet out of this mass of material, modern books only scrape the surface.
There are two primary reasons for this situation. Neither is nefarious or threatening to anyone.
First, all these old documents are in paper form. To read them, one has to visit a NARA facility, identify what is to be examined, wait for staff to pull the volumes or file boxes, and then read thousands of individual pages that are, at best, in chronological order. At worst, the pages resemble something swept off a desk and dumped in a box.
A “simple” solution is to scan (digitize) everything and then make files available over the internet. The Newman Numismatic Portal (NNP) has been supporting document scanning for several years and posts the results on its website for free access and download. This project is funded entirely by the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society, which, by-the-way, is where proceeds of the auction of Mr. Newman’s coin collection ended up. An exceptionally benevolent use of a lifetime collection.
Here’s a screen grab of the NNP pages beginning the materials on United States Mint papers:
Despite its excellence and years of work, NNP has barely tapped the true mass of archival U.S. Mint documents. Every time I look at a volume or file box, I find something new and interesting – often never before seen by any living person. It’s an amazing feeling to realize that I might be the first person to read that letter since it was sent 150 or 200 years ago!
Very few collectors will ever get the chance to visit a NARA facility or examine Mint documents. Fewer still can devote the days, weeks, or months necessary to search for a favorite topic, or to find the letters relating to it. While digitization can bring images of the originals to view, it is slow and necessarily expensive work. Archivists are cautious about how people treat old historic papers and NARA, like any other archival custodian, has strict rules about handling originals. Automation is rarely permitted. A good example is digitization of old census records by Ancestry.com. Even inside a partnership with NARA, automatic page turning is prohibited. An employee has to turn every page before it can be scanned.
In the research that I do, almost everything is scanned even if it might have no immediate use. Someday, someone might want that lone, forgotten page. It is common to produce several thousand images in a single research workday. Occasionally, I scan documents for other researchers who cannot get to the archives. Not long ago a European researcher contacted me about materials in the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Since I am frequently there I checked, found the items he was looking for, and then scanned them for him. These were sent via a file transfer protocol, and saved the gentleman the expense and hassle of traveling to Washington, D.C.
Although private foundation money and small amounts of public funding are available, they are applied to high-value projects, such as digitizing all the papers of George Washington and other prominent politicians, scientists, artists, authors, and documents of national importance. There is, and probably will never be, any public source of digitization funds for U.S. Mint (or Treasury) papers. They are too far down the priority lists.
As NNP and individuals gradually increase the quantity of available documents, and improve public access, we can all hope that some of the ancient mysteries of American numismatics will be solved. For the present, we have to do our best with what becomes available.
Next time we’ll look at the other impediment to access of American numismatic information: readability. This is the ability of people to read and understand a document. It is of little help in finding new information to have a nice digital image on your computer screen, and not be able to read or understand what is written.