Thursday, 21 March 2013

CILIP in London Meeting: Swimming in Data: Records Research in the Digital Age

On Tuesday I attended another CILIP in London meeting at The Square Wine Bar, Tolmers Square, near Euston. Called Swimming in Data: Records Research in the Digital AgeCaroline Kimbell, Head of Licensing at The National Archives in Kew, gave a talk on how the digitisation of Kew's archives is changing the ways in which history is studied.

Caroline explained that there are around 180km of archives at Kew, most of which are handwritten. Only around 7% of these records have been digitised so far, and while some of this has been pushed forward in line with Government policy, much of it is commercially driven.

Caroline explained some of the ways in which digitisation has assisted with research in new and unexpected ways. Digital records enable teams to work more collaboratively in the search for information, and means that collections which previously lay dormant have been 'woken up'. For instance, medical historians can use records kept by ships' surgeons to find out more about disease, while historians and scientists can use logs from whaling ships to map the extent of the Arctic ice shelf at various points in the past. Royal Navy log books from the 1690s onwards are assisting climatologists, allowing them to study the recorded weather readings and map them on a scale impossible before digitisation.

Digitisation can help make documents accessible again. Damaged census returns from Manchester, which had become unreadable owing to exposure to damp, have been made visible thanks to UV and infrared light techniques.

In literature, digitisation means that writing can be studied in different and more scientific ways. For instance, it has become possible to search text for particular words and phrases to get a more general idea about writing in the past. Tags and keywords can be added to digital documents to assist future researchers.

This system is not, however, without its flaws. The tags and keywords added now reflect our own cultural priorities and may not be what future generations need or want to study. Caroline mentioned the example of law archives: records of past cases survive because those in power at the time felt that they were important.

I really enjoyed Caroline's talk, and am particularly glad that she mentioned the Old Weather project - this allows the public to help transcribe the weather reports mentioned earlier, and looks like a great deal of fun too.

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