Farewell to history?

Alan Cleaver
history 150x150 Farewell to history?

How secure is our history?

The British Library is no longer taking microfilm copies of newspapers. The news was broken to me while visiting Whitehaven’s Record Office and Local Studies Library. Like most archive offices in the UK, they have traditionally bought microfilm of local newspapers from the British Library.

The closure of the Library’s Microfilm Unit on December 31 2010 didn’t make splash headlines in the thousands of local, regional and national newspapers it stores in its vaults at Colindale, north London. But it could have a huge impact on the many lovers of family and local history as well as once again raising the question as to whether ‘history’ as a subject in itself is in danger of becoming extinct. My first intimation of this was in 1996 when helping The Times to launch its online edition. There was a correction published one day and the web operator asked whether he should amend the digitally archived edition or just put a hyperlink note on the story advising that there was a correction published a few days later. It could have been Winston Smith talking as he revised and ‘corrected’ the newspaper articles in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. It dawned on me that it would be so easy to update digital information that it might not be long before we lived in an ‘eternal present’ where history didn’t exist – only a continually fluid and updated archive. Fortunately The Times opted for a hyperlink advising of a correction but other publishers do delete or revise past errors – either of fact or of taste. After 9/11 it was rumoured that some American newspapers removed or altered archived articles that might be seen as sympathetic to their new enemy.

Perhaps slightly worse than amending digital archives is not having them at all. It’s not a problem while hard copies are still produced but it’s quite possible that in the near future more and more newspapers will end the costly business of printing and distributing stories on newsprint and opt instead for the cheaper methods of e-publishing. Perhaps a law could be passed forcing publishers to archive digital news in the same way as publishers are required to send hard copies to the British Library and other institutions? But it’s not as simple as it sounds. What, for example is an ‘archive’? The Whitehaven News’ website reacted to the gun rampage by Derrick Bird on June 2, 2010 by publishing a continually updated account. Events were happening too quickly for traditional news stories to be published one after another. At what point should we have ‘archived’ the story? Historians of the future would no doubt wish for a minute-by-minute archive of the West Cumbrian shootings but will be disappointed (anyone trying to find now the rumour of a second gunman will be hard-pressed indeed). The dilemma for today’s digital publishers is when does an update end and an archive begin?

Surely, we all agree that history is important? If so, then newspaper publishers and archivists need to sit down and sort out just how this brand of social history will be stored. Storing digitally has huge advantages (much less space, searchable, full colour etc) but is a nightmare when it comes to future-proofing. Even if CDs and DVDs exist in another ten years, will the discs themselves have corrupted due to old age? Microfilm is much more future-proof but is black and white, and isn’t of course searchable.

There is no national policy about archiving newspapers. The British Library has given up on microfilm but local authorities are currently continuing down that route. However there is a cost to be borne with micro-filming and one can’t imagine that it’s going to be top of the ‘must save’ list in any future budget cut discussion. Digital archiving is cheap but there remains the question mark of how future-proof they are.

For the moment hard copies of newspapers remain the most secure option. Afterall, we know for a fact real newspapers last for at least 400 years. Let’s hope publishers continue to print ‘real’ papers for a few more decades at least.

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  • harleymc

    I thoroughly dislike the idea of retropectively changeing archived documents however in defence of the digital…
    There is nothing about updated versions of a digital document that can not be archived, it would be akin to tracking changes/ versions in a word document, it’s actually rather simple. Infact more information can be stored ie the time/date of changes and the authorship of those changes. What is lacking is the will and the resources.
    Microfilm was nasty, very timeconsuming to search through and hard on the eyes.

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