Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Q50: How to preserve historical documents?

From: Marjorie Malloff, Saskatchewan

While working on some of this historical material and then seeing how much still has to be done I am at times overwhelmed by the enormity of good material still to be processed and put some place. Do you find yourself in the same boat, or were you more successful and diligent? So much good stuff is locked in the Russian language, that I wonder what will become of it.

Looking forward to your thoughts and suggestions on this dilemma.


We need to digitize all documents and post them on the Internet, which provides low cost, wide distribution of searchable documents. Translating Russian documents is more difficult. This is time-consuming expensive work, but can be done if many donate time and funds.

In my Ottawa study showing the last gift to the Saskachewan Archives, June 1, 2004.

For my part, I have donated much of my archival collection to the Saskatchewan Archives, which preserves a Doukhobor collection measuring 84.4 meters (277 feet) donated by 11 Doukhobor historians. 76% (64 meters) comprise the Tarasoff Papers. I trust the library to preserve the collection and provide access, but one needs to go to that library, documents are not digital and the Russian is not translated. Also, beginning in the 1950s, I have donated Russian and English materials to the Special Collections of the University of British Columbia in cooperation with librarian Jack McIntosh.

I still have a quantity of select archival materials at home for my day-to-day research and writing. For example, my on-going 49-volume Notes on the Doukhobor Social Movement now numbers 9,000 pages. Since the 1950s I have tens of thousands of photos, with over 1,400 Doukhobor historical photos donated to the Public Archives of British Columbia in Victoria, BC. At the age 80, I am still accumulating more text and photos, planning to produce more papers and an e-book.

For the past decade I have been posting much of my new materials and select old items on the Internet. I am pleased that Google digitized 6 of my books which you can search on line, but not yet preview, which requires cooperation with publishers.

But that does not address your question about older documents in Russian not in digital format, sitting on shelves, which cannot be found by searching the Internet for keywords.

Take inventory. Make it public.
  1. Organize and archive the documents by major topics in public spaces (library, museum, USCC, ...) using a library filing system, like box and folder.
  2. Describe and index each topic collection in a finding aid using many keywords.
  3. Post all finding aids on the Internet, so they can be found by search engines and easily read on mobile devices.
  4. Iskra is already organized, but its contents need to be posted, like we did with The Inquirer.
This gets you organized and public. Then each collection can be digitized by priority when possible. Handwritten documents must be typed or summarised. Russian OCR readers can convert most of the Russian text, but errors and alphabet updates must be corrected. Then digital Russian text can be computer translated, which requires extensive editing.

My webmaster, Andrei Conovaloff, researched some of this new technology for his own work and sent the following links to Jim Popoff in March 2012 to help with digitizing Iskra.
The new technology is spectacular and low cost, but volunteers and/or funds are needed to do the work, like the Psalmist Project. See how the Brethren are archiving now. Students at all levels can paritcipate for credit. There are numerous opportunities for graduate projects and degrees. I wish our society would divert war money to the archival preservation of translation, interviews, ethnographic field work, film recording and more.

If any reader has a suggestion or can help, please comment below.

More: Questions and Answers, Comments

1 comment:

  1. Koozma,

    I noted with interest your response to Marjorie Malloff’s question regarding the translation and documentation of Russian documents relating to our Doukhobor history.

    You mentioned that documents can be scanned using OCR readers which can convert into Russian text, which can then be computer translated. Maybe some day the technology will be more robust, but my experience is that the current computer software programs simply do a very poor job of translation, rife with errors relating to grammatical usage, the inability to recognize non-current alphabetical symbols, and the complete lack of interpretation of words whose original historical meaning has changed over time; all of which requires essentially as much personal labour to edit and correct (or more), as it does to produce a human (rather than machine) translation in the first place.

    There is still currently no substitute for skilled and experienced bi-lingual translators who can translate a piece in ordinary human dialogue, using words imbued with the historical meaning and context which was originally intended. It’s a fact - this costs significant amount of time and/or money.

    Over time, dedicated researchers with an interest in sharing valuable texts on our Doukhobor history and culture, originally published in other languages, will make more and more information and resources available in English for the broader benefit of others. Indeed, this is happening already.

    For example, three of the books I published relating to Doukhobor genealogy and history were based on materials translated from original Russian archival records. The translation process, which I undertook myself, was long and painstaking. These books were as follows:

    - 1853 Tax Register of Doukhobors in the Caucasus:
    - 1918 Census of Independent Doukhobors:
    - 1930 Named Doukhobors of Canada Membership List:

    At the same time, as Marjorie mentioned in her original email to you, I have, with great effort, obtained literally stacks of records, over 5,000 in total of 19th century Russian-language documents relating to the Doukhobors from various archives in Russia and the Post-Soviet Republics. These records will take a considerable period of time to translate, either by myself, or in conjunction with others; however, the intention is to make them all available to the English-speaking public.

    At the same time, on my Doukhobor Genealogy Website, I have undertaken a considerable number of translations of 18th and 19th century texts, originally published in Russian, Ukrainian, German and French, into English. In some cases I have undertaken the translations myself; in other cases I have commissioned top-notch, reputable (and renowned) translators such as Jack McIntoch, Gunter Schaarschmidt, and others. While the cost of doing so has been defrayed, somewhat, by contributions made to my website, the vast majority of expenses, totaling many thousands of dollars, I have assumed personally. You will find dozens upon dozens of such important historical translations on the Stories & Articles section of my website at:


    The point is, much work has already been done; while a significant body of work remains to be done. Over time it will be accomplished, whether it is done by one or many individuals, through a coordinated effort or by random undertakings. There is no “simple” or “easy” fix to translating, documenting and preserving Russian documents relating to our Doukhobor people. It take time and effort. The slogan “Toil and Peaceful Life” comes to mind here. However, the benefit of undertaking this work, in terms of preserving our vital, life-giving Doukhobor culture and spiritual heritage, simply cannot be understated.


    Jonathan J. Kalmakoff