Archives: The Movie!

Cross posted to Cliopatria

This is just one of a number of ‘showreels’ put together to highlight the modern British history resources recently put online thanks to funding from JISC, the Joint Information Services Committee. JISC now has its own youtube channel, where you can find out more about the Cabinet Papers, newsfilm, cartoon and ephemera archives that have been digitised. 

The quantity of work involved – and the quantity of material now potentially available online – is remarkable. And whilst some of these archives remain ATHENS password protected, others are freely accessible to the general public. I have the odd quibble about interfaces (I found the Cabinet Papers system rather clunky and hard to use, but I get the feeling it might be aimed less at academics than at sixth formers). Mostly, however, these are all good things.

This has made me think about the digitising of archives as a means of public history, and particularly putting the web to work not just to make this material available, but to increase its utility . The Great War Archive, as showcased above, has created a new resource by getting users to send in photographs and scans of artefacts. On the British Cartoon Archive, users will eventually be able to create their own ‘groups’ of images to which they’ll be able to add content. And elsewhere on its site, the YourArchives section of the National Archives seems to be going from strength to strength.

But wouldn’t the real power of this digitisation come if you could have a way to create links across the different archives? There are, of course, all sorts of problems of formatting, terminology and software. But I wonder what you could do with simpler sites that provided a way of visualising these connections and allowed users to do the work of adding in connections. Look, for example, at the ‘Mapping our Anzacs’ site, created by the National Archives of Australia. Here, a map interface allows users not only to see the digitised enlistment records of Australian servicemen from the First World War, but to add in their own information and tributes. What if you had a map and a timeline, onto which you could add links to all of these different digital archives and your own uploaded images and data? This would increase the range of sources of which historians made use and improve engagement with the public sphere. Or are the problems – the need for moderation, the existing structure of archives (which are often set up to compete, not collaborate), the variety of different software in use – too great?

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2 Responses to Archives: The Movie!

  1. Chris Williams says:

    There are people at the National Archives thinking this through right now. Sharon ‘Early Modern Notes’ Howard is also working on ‘tag-it-yourself’ procedures for the big Sheffield projects.

    Me, I think that although this capability of the system is nice to have, we need to keep on spending the money to get high-quality archives into the public domain by the bucketload. Only a tiny fraction of it is as yet out there, and some of the low-hanging fruit (e.g. C19th/C20th local newspapers for every county) remains stubbornly unpicked.

    PS Happy New Year

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