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Archives threatened by government cuts

Would you still visit a library to look at this old book if you could see it digitally on your computer? Are there any drawbacks to seeing only the virtual version?

Early 20th century set of case notes for Sir Archibald Garrod (Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children)

The Centre for the Historical Record was set up earlier this month by Kingston University to look at how public history should be preserved for future generations and to make the best use of technology. Their commitment to full collaborative discussion between historians, archivists, scholars and the public has lead the team to highlight some pros and cons of digitising historical collections.

As more and more information becomes available online, people visit central archives less. However, the performance of an archive is measured by footfall, so fewer visits lead to a reduction in funding and a consequent decrease in the resources available for conserving physical records. As libraries and archives face grant cuts by both central and local government, commercial companies are stepping in to pay for digitisation, charging for access and offering royalties. Academics at Kingston fear that archive data on these commercial websites tends to be geared to family history at the expense of educational research. Keywording of the census, for instance, concentrates on name and place, rather than on information of more interest to the social historian, such as occupation.

Increasingly, there is a sense that the digital record is the record. A digital ‘surrogate’ is made of a document or photograph so the original can be packed away or even destroyed to free up valuable storage space. Pretty scary when you consider how technology can become obsolete. The British Library considered binning some fragile flaking newspapers in its collections before deciding to archive all the physical copies in Boston Spa when the Newspaper Library leaves Colindale in a couple of years. The digitisation of 40 million newspaper and periodical pages over ten years is being undertaken by brightsolid (owner of findmypast.co.uk). While it will undoubtedly make the process of searching newspapers easier and quicker, the high cost of digitisation (£1 a page) means leaving out quite a lot – titles of less interest to the genealogist perhaps? 

Experts at the Centre for Historical Record warn that this financial exploitation is restricting the full use of historical documents. As Kingston historian Dr Sue Hawkins told me, it’s giving ‘more people access but to fewer records’.