Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ancestors, Archives and Medieval Writing

I have become aware lately of the amazing growth in the services to the public provided by the National Archives in London through their various digital copying projects. Between my husband's historical research and my website, we have discovered that digital copies of all manner of archival material can be downloaded, meaning that work can be done from the other side of the world without the necessity for a visit to the archives themselves. Family historians are able to look up names and places to find ancient documents that may relate to their family affairs. The amount of sheer work that has been expended on providing these resources is mindboggling. More and more archives and libraries are providing digital resources, but this particular one is noteworthy in its range, search facilities and ability to be targetted to the needs of individual users.
One consequence of this is that people are ordering documents, only to discover that they may be very difficult to read and understand. Suddenly there is a new market for learning medieval paleography. There is also a market for teaching about the legal processes behind the documents, as even with accurate transcripts, it can be hard to make sense of these things without such knowledge. In fact, it might be fair to say that there is a new market for medieval history, just when the idiots who run our countries and education systems are winding courses down in favour of what they perceive to be relevant.
Of course, the process of providing the digital imagery and the online catalogues must generate a whole range of other work, as 700 years or so of archiving must inevitably generate a few anomalies in the cataloguing. As users, I fear that as soon as we get something that works brilliantly, we are making demands for it to be improved, expanded and corrected. I guess we see the potential but not the drudgery and dogwork that goes into producing these amazing resources.
There is also the potential for historical archival material to be opened up to new forms of inquiry. In the past, users of archives tended to have particular types of education and training, which led them into asking particular kinds of questions of the historical evidence. More general access could lead to folks with a diversity of interests asking questions that haven't been thought of yet. I recently received a download of a document which was not the one I thought I had ordered, because of cataloguing changes. The document was quite fascinating for two reasons, neither of which were things I had ever thought about. I have a wicked urge to order some documents by random catalogue number, just to see what turns up and whether they pose any more questions I had never considered. Who knows, it might result in the development of a whole new historical methodology.

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