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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Lair is a peaceful place, rarely troubled by ruddy-faced explosions of wrath from its occupant. However, that aura of tranquility has been threatened today by Tristram Hunt's bizarre attack on the digitisation of source material. I don't usually come across a piece that seems so utterly and irredeemably crass, and although others - notably Lucy Inglis - have already gone into battle on behalf of common sense and the modern age, I thought I'd join the fray and fire off a passing broadside or two. 

To start with, Dr Hunt seems to be taking issue primarily with the Google Books project by extolling the virtues of physically handling manuscripts. Now, books and manuscripts are two entirely different things, as the pupils of the school where I used to teach learned by the time they were about eight. But bearing with Dr Hunt's confused line of argument for a while, I'd concur that few things beat the sheer unpredictable fun of working with and handling original sources - for instance, the countless discoveries I've made among the filthy and chaotic ADM or HCA collections at the National Archives in Kew, or (perhaps most memorably) crawling on hands and knees on the floor of the Dundee City Archives, pulling a fabulously eclectic cornucopia of documents out of an ancient tin trunk. But this, after all, is the twenty-first century. Digitisation has opened up all sorts of possibilities - yes, the short-cuts so derided by Dr Hunt, despite the fact that such short-cuts enable us to discover sources we would probably either have taken far longer to find or would never have found at all. Take the project to digitise the state papers - how can that possibly be a bad thing, as it permits the preservation of the originals, means historians no longer have to rely on incomplete calendars or frequently unreadable microfilms, and above all permits easy access to the sources to those who live further than an easy day's commute from the National Archives at Kew? Moreover, why, exactly, should history be 'a mystery', accessible only to those of us who have been house-trained in using original documents? If the digitisation of sources means that more people become enthusiastic enough to research a topic in detail and write about it without necessarily going through the Inquisition-like process of proving they are worthy of being granted readers' tickets for the British Library, then where, exactly, is the problem?

It seems particularly perverse, then, that this elitist metrocentric claptrap should have been produced by someone who [a] purports to be the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, where presumably the working men's clubs debate nothing else but the problems of provenance with the state papers (domestic) of the Interregnum, and [b] was responsible for inflicting upon the world one of the lowest of all low points in the dumbing down of TV history, a right-on series about the English civil war during which the now-MP held up pictures of key figures as he mentioned them. But presumably there were people in the 1850s and 1860s who opposed the revolutionary new access to historical sources conferred by the openings of the Public Record Office and British Library, and the calendaring of sources by the PRO and Historical Manuscripts Commission. Moreover, Dr Hunt is certainly not the first MP to suggest that access to archives should be confined to an elite: 'the general task of supervising the publication of such of the records as possessed an historic interest [should] be committed to the charge of some persons of taste and erudition, and in all respects qualified for the task', said Williams Wynn, MP for Montgomeryshire...on 23 June 1846. And yes, I found that quotation online and within minutes via an indispensable digital source, the online archive of Hansard. And pace Dr Hunt, I didn't even have time to slurp my frappucino.


  1. I'm right with you David. Speaking as a Canadian who is going to the UK to do his PhD (quite happily, mind you) if digitized documents had been available earlier I may have been accepted at other universities.

    Given the expense of living in the UK and the real possibility that I may have to move back to Canada midway through my program, I'm going to spending a lot of time with a camera, digitizing the many documents I run across. One near future project I will be doing is the creation of a wiki which will have all of the photos uploaded, so I will be able to access my research from anywhere in the world.

  2. Christine HancockJuly 3, 2011 at 11:37 PM

    Thank you for bringing this article to my attention – not being a reader of that newspaper.
    I would agree that nothing could compare with actually handling original documents – that experience of ordering a document at TNA and not knowing what will turn up at the desk. Will it be an enormous box of rolled up documents or a small piece of parchment a few inches square – and how does something that small manage to survive several hundred years? I am not a “proper” historian and probably Mr Hunt would shudder at someone like me being able to access original documents, but this is our heritage – it belongs to us all and we should be able to look at it, if we want to.
    BUT - I am a family historian. At one time we could visit a church and search parish registers, then they were filmed and we could order a microfilm and search – if we knew what parish to look at. Now images and indexes are available online for many areas of the country. How would the original books survive if everyone wanted to look at the originals?
    So the original documents should be there for those who can make the effort to visit, but those researchers who are too far away or not able to visit, should be able to search and see images of the documents.
    Finally, you mention the State Papers Online. Someone like me, an amateur, cannot look at this site without visiting TNA, which defeats the object of the exercise. Why is it not available to all?

  3. Tristram Hunt really should know better. Yes, there is nothing quite like handling a document that is decades. or even centuries, old, and even the best scanning technology won't reproduce every aspect of the original - the texture, the weight, or the smell. One of the reasons for digitization is to make sought-after records more accessible, but it is equally important to protect the documents from excessive handling.

    There is certainly more to a document that the words it contains, and if it were not for experts on historical ink and paper the infamous Hitler Diaries would never have been exposed as fakes. But for the vast majority of researchers the availability of good quality images that can be downloaded anywhere in the world is a godsend, and provides the information they need.

    There is a potential downside to digitization, which is more to do with the indexing that often goes with it; when you can parachute in directly to the page that you want you miss all the incidental details that you see when you have to trawl through a large book. So there is a danger of losing the context, but this is down to the behaviour of the researcher than the nature of the source. Perhaps Dr Hunt would do better to employing his (presumably considerable) skills and knowledge to help the newly-empowered research community appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of online research. As it stands, his comments make it sound as though he just doesn't like sharing his toys.