A few weeks ago, Rufus and I attended the annual Gerald Aylmer Seminar, jointly organised by the National Archives and the Royal Historical Society. The topic for the event was ‘Digital Horizons: how the digital revolution changes the relationship between historians and their historical sources’.

Here are some belated jottings…

Opening talk by Natalie Ceeney, Chief Executive of The National Archives

  • She described the differences between digitised and ‘born digital’ sources.
  • Fine Rolls Henry III is an exemplary digitisation project. It publishes rolls from 1216-1248.
    • N.B. Access is free, but copyright page says: “© Crown copyright images reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England. […] Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education.”
  • Your Archives wiki allows users to contribute their knowledge about archival sources.
    • N.B. Terms and conditions of use stipulate that material may be used for personal/noncommercial purposes, and for online sources users must link to the wiki rather than reproducing/redistributing content.
  • Majority of the material the NA is currently archiving is already in digital form (e-mails, document files, etc.) – albeit dispersed in different places, and in different formats.
  • There is a vast amount of material being produced. NA are soliciting for advice from historians to help predict trends in historical research in order to help them decide what kinds of material to focus on and prioritise.

Richard Boulderstone, Director of e-Strategy and Information Systems at the British Library

  • Asked whether future of historical research was digital and interactive.
  • Current cost of digitisation at the British Library is around £1/page.
  • There are a limited number of funding sources: JISC, Google, Microsoft, Heritage Lottery Fund, patrons, international, government and EU sources.
  • Procedure for digitisation includes: selection, OCR, metadata, hosting, rights clearance.
  • Emphasised the importance of the ‘look and feel’ of the products of digitisation.
  • Alluded to Conference of European National Libraries survey on digitisation from 2006, which said 4.7m items had been digitised of over 400m physical items held. British library has digitised 230k items and projects a figure of 17m for 2012.
    • It’d be great to see the sources for these figures. I’ve had a quick look around CENL, TEL, EDL and other sites without success.
  • Newspapers account for 41% of digitisation efforts. He suggested that it could be fruitful for various EU newspaper digitisation projects to work together.
  • UK has relatively little funding for digitisation projects, compared to other EU countries. Funds from JISC and Microsoft.
  • Digitisation is in its infancy. Problems with storage and interoperability. Copyright issues.
  • ArXiv as an example of a successful digital archive project.
  • European National Libraries will have digitised 4% of holdings by 2012.
  • Reiterated main issues with digitisation: funding, standards, copyright, technology, interoperability.
  • Rufus asked about copyright of products of digitisation and Richard said that the British Library were asserting full copyright for economic reasons.

Tim Hitchcock, Co-author/director of Old Bailey Online

  • Spoke about the impact on historical research and research methodology of different technologies of storage, retrieval and classification.
  • He described how the material that is available strongly affects the kinds of areas historians choose to study and cited art history as a good example of this – increased availability of a wide variety of images has led an increase in the diversity of research.
  • New ways of organising and searching material (such as tagging/keyword searching) open up research and collapse traditional disciplinary boundaries (e.g. as in Dewey/Library of Congress classification schemes).
  • More possible to re-construct the biography of an ordinary individual from various digitised sources (such as Old Bailey Online).

Historians from the University of Roehampton, the Institute of Historical Research, and the Centre for Contemporary British History spoke of specific experiences using and providing digital resources for historical research.

Many of the participants I spoke to afterwords agreed it would be great to see more open digital resources for historical education and research!

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Dr. Jonathan Gray is Lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, where he is currently writing a book on data worlds. He is also Cofounder of the Public Data Lab; and Research Associate at the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the médialab (Sciences Po, Paris). More about his work can be found at jonathangray.org and he tweets at @jwyg.