Unpicking the Past

22nd September 2017

As we learned in our last issue, it’s twenty years since Google began to transform the process of research and reference. Now Deborah Mulhearn investigates whether there’s still a place for paper records in the digital age…

After the battle of aylesbury in 1642, William Delafield, clerk of the parish of Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, was horrified when returning Roundhead soldiers tried to plunder the church and take ‘forcible possession’ of the parish register. According to historic accounts William, although also a Parliamentarian, was outraged at the sacrilege – and sprang to action to protect it.

In the ensuing fight, William was injured and his blood stained the page where the precious volume had fallen open. Luckily, he lived to tell the tale, and so did the parish register. Three hundred and seventy five years later, the battered and stained leather-bound register can be seen at Buckinghamshire County Council’s Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury.

Although many archives are digitising their material, allowing for almost unlimited access and with superb results, there are some artefacts that will never be digitised. The Waddesdon parish register is long and thin with pages that cannot be fully opened, and so would be difficult to photograph at a high enough resolution, explains archivist Laura Cotton. “It would also be very difficult to read the handwriting online, as there are so many marks and stains.”

While the internet is a fabulous resource, there is no substitute to the thrill of finally holding a document you have been searching for, sometimes for years. The hushed reverence of the reading room, the suppressed excitement of waiting for your material to appear, the thud of the huge registers as they are heaved off the shelf, the smell of the dust and ancient paper, the untying of a beribboned cache of letters and seeing the faded ink and beautiful handwriting – this sensuous experience cannot be replicated online.

Archives are full of remarkable survivals such as the Waddesdon register, and the challenge to archivists in the internet age is to make their collections more accessible to wider and more diverse audiences.

From the 1990s to around five years ago, the numbers of people visiting archives increased exponentially, mostly fuelled by the appetite for family history. But over the same time, more and more internet archives started to appear, offering images and information of ever-increasing sophistication and quality. People have come to expect immediate access to images and information.

There has never been more interest in our past. Memberships to genealogy websites have gone up and up, fuelled by tv programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? And so, alongside the growth of internet archives, the numbers visiting physical archives started to dwindle. The Family Records Centre in Myddelton Street, Clerkenwell, closed in 2008 as more online records became available. Funding cuts to archive services in general have also meant closures and loss of archival material.

Even in a museum you can’t normally touch objects. You look at them through glass – whereas in an archive you are literally touching the lives of others from the past. “The Waddesdon register is very beautiful, and the value of seeing and touching it in the archive cannot be underestimated,” agrees Cotton.

“We have parish registers dating back to the early sixteenth century, and visitors can handle these and other material that is 800 years old at the archive. Some of our registers are masterpieces and as beautiful as an Old Master painting. At the archive you see the real essence of items such as these, which you just can’t capture online.”

In the case of the Waddesdon register, the bloodstained lower portion of the page was cut out some time after the Civil War, which explains the missing entries between 1645 and 1653. “The pages are damaged and stained, yes, but they have been through so much and have so many stories to tell. They show their age, and you can’t always see this on a web page. We are keeping them for the nation and there is no point in doing that unless people can see and touch them.”

Most visitors to archives are professional researchers and academics. But this is changing slowly, and archives are opening up their collections, redesigning their spaces and reaching out more to their communities. It’s a balance between keeping the quiet, studious atmosphere and making it an accessible place where people feel they can walk in and be comfortable.

At Kew, where the National Archives are held, there are plans to encourage more public users. A new restaurant was completed last year, and a large events space opens in May 2017. The reconfigured site will be more welcoming and accessible, with landscaped areas and water features. Future plans include new learning spaces for children and young people, and exhibition spaces to showcase the unique and rich collections held at Kew.

“Online searches are quick and easy,” says independent archivist Janice Tullock. “But you are only getting the bare bones. You get lots of names – for example workhouse records or school registers – but these don’t tell you how someone really lived. You are missing out on so much if you don’t visit a physical archive… the serendipity of a chance find, or an encounter with an interesting person, place or story.”

Looking online is a good starting point for basic research, Janice advises, “but then contact your local archives and find out what they have. A 17th century map of your village is not likely to have been digitised and there’s no substitute to seeing a beautiful object such as a historic map.”

The centenary of World War One has brought family as well as military history to the forefront. Thousands of people signed up to be involved with online archive projects run by the Imperial War Museum (IWM), for example. Like most museums today, IWM has an ongoing process of digitisation, explains their historian and project manager Charlotte Czyzyk.

IWM worked with genealogy website Find My Past on the digital memorial Lives of the First World War. “Working with a specialist in family history has helped us delve deeper into the lives of soldiers, sailors, nurses and others,” says Czyzyk. “People are looking for personal stories, both military and civilian, of wartime.”

The physical archive and website work together, she says. “The website gives us a global audience and provides access beyond the walls of the museum. It’s been a great success, with a combination of official records and more personal stories where people can upload scanned photographs and other items such as medal cards and war diaries. But it’s also encouraged more people to come into our archive at Kennington, where they can make an appointment to see records, diaries and letters kept during the conflict.”

A popular online item has been a set of interviews acquired by IWM with people who experienced the first day of the Battle of the Somme. “This has seen a huge increase in website traffic, but it’s also inspiring a new audience who have never been to a physical archive,” adds Czyzyk. “Through the links to objects we’ve converted a digital audience into physical visitors to Kennington. It has enriched our collections as well as providing a great resource for everyone.”

Digitisation will remain crucial because many archival documents are too fragile to handle and it’s important that people can still see the materials. But contemporary and future formats also need archiving, and IWM collect material related to contemporary conflicts, not just on paper, but in text messages and social media. “Letters, for example, are often the only way to understand a person and their relationships,” says Tullock, but often an archive has only the responses to the letter writer. With digital communications both sides of the story are saved.”

Paper, of course, takes up far more storage space than digital archives, but both need preserving and maintaining if they are to last – although wearing gloves while perusing physical documentation is no longer essential. “It’s a bit of a myth about the white cotton gloves,” laughs Tullock. “They are rarely used now and in fact they can damage documents because you have less sensitivity when wearing them. So they are generally only used for handling photographs.”

Paper can last for centuries in the correct environmental conditions, whereas electronic media is quickly superseded and needs updating with new formats. “We think of archives being all about the past, but we never know what’s going to be important in the future,” says Tullock. “Architectural drawings, building plans, even sewerage plans, are vitally important for today’s planners and builders, for example.”

Of course, as Janice Tullock observes, even with digitisation we can’t keep everything. “It’s an archivist’s job to try and identify what is most useful…”

For more information about the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies go to www.buckscc.gov.uk; call 01296 382587 or email archives@buckscc.gov.uk to book before you visit. To find out more about the individuals who served in WW1, visit: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org

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