Friday 2 November 2012

Manufacturing Pasts: Can Digital Resources Change History?

A post from Gill...

In response to Tom and Ben’s recent posts and ahead of Friday’s Lab on ‘Manufacturing Pasts’ I thought I’d add my tuppence worth to the digitisation debate!

And, for those of who like to be ahead of the game, here are the links to the growing number of excellent digital resources that will form the basis of Friday’s discussion and are currently available for local, industrial and environmental historical research:;
Also, and I may regret this, but this is a video I made with the expert help of Terese Bird, with the aim of creating a toolkit that will help students get to grips with the visual material in the digital archive. There is a long version: and a short version:

As well as my PhD research, working on the ‘Manufacturing Pasts’ project has helped clarify a couple of issues for me, so this is what I’ve discovered over the last few months...

Trading Fragility for Ephemera

Digital archives do not replace physical archives. They create a new set of digital objects that simulate some of the qualities of the original. While these objects may appear more robust than the fragile document they simulate, they are at the same time more unstable because they are ephemeral; dependent on the specific combination of hardware and software that supports them.  Recognising the limitations of both digital and physical documents allows us to see the relationship between their respective archives more clearly. What is important here, is not to view the digital archive as an alternative to the physical archive, but as a means (to refer to Tom’s earlier blog and highway analogy) to more effectively change between lanes on the information superhighway. For example, if (as a researcher) you can do an initial search of the archive and get a sense of its contents before leaving your desk, you can make a shorter, more effective trip to the physical archive. This is good news for those travelling researchers like Ben, who can spend less time in lonely hotel rooms crying into their pot noodles ;) Or like Tom, you may have time to consider the more kooky elements of an archival collection that you wouldn’t have ‘wasted’ time with if you were on a tight 9-5 schedule. Of course different collections will maintain different dynamics between the digital and the physical, but the point is to use the digital to re-imagine what we know about our respective subjects, while maintaining awareness of how all archives construct historical memory.

The Floodgates?

Those who have been busy reviewing the success of digitisation projects have noted that thus far many more quantitative studies have been completed using digital archives, despite this not being the aspiration of those who initiated digitisation projects. It appears then, that researchers of the qualitative ilk have not yet taken up the digital challenge. Similarly, of the archivists I’ve talked to, the challenge of digitisation has not been a flood of users abusing material, but how to attract users to the site. It appears that we may need to build into digital collections some kind of interface between the digitisers and the users, just as we need archivist in the archive.

This leads me to the superb ‘Manufacturing Pasts’ project that is currently under development at the University of Leicester. The project has sought not only to make material available digitally, but also provide a set on Online Educational resources, or tools, that help researchers to find their way through the material.

Have we solved all the challenges of the digital? Well there is only way to find out...

... come and join us at New History Lab where well be discussing ‘Manufacturing Pasts: Can digital resources change History? Be there, or be seriously lacking in tea, cake and cutting-edge historical discussion!