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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

16 November 2015

Help Save the British Records Association

One of the distinctive features of many London squares and terraces are the black metal stubs on house walls and steps, where metal fences were cut down to provide scrap metal to make weapons during the Second World War. In his recent fascinating book, Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War (Cambridge University Press), Peter Thorsheim describes how these recycling drives affected many other materials, including paper and books. Paper was an important ingredient in such wartime products as land mines, bullet cartridges, shipping containers, radios and of course propaganda and information posters. The demand for paper was immense throughout the war.
Thorsheim reports how in September 1941, Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) made a broadcast congratulating the people of Britain for contributing 400,000 tons of waste paper to the war effort, but she explained that more was needed: ‘Tucked away in our bookshelves and cupboards and offices there are masses of books, magazines, old business records, and papers of every sort laid by in case they may be wanted some day. That day has come! Your country wants them now. Keep your family Bible of course and anything of historical or special value; but from the rest you can each contribute your special share of the ship loads that these old books and papers would save’. (Thorsheim, pp. 184–5).
Officials were keen to help out by identifying waste paper in official archives. Local councils were urged to release for repulping all papers and books which it was not necessary to retain. Sir William Davison MP noted the ‘vast accumulation of ancient files of papers’ held by government departments and declared that wartime provided a perfect chance to get rid of all this useless clutter. Despite injunctions not to destroy material of historical significance, many financial records created by the East India Company were pulped. In deciding to recycle all correspondence of their Education department over ten years old, Aberdeen Council decided specifically to ignore any historical interest of this material. Surrey County Council proposed to pulp most of its papers and documents which were more than three years old. The destruction was not limited to public authorities. In January 1941, The Times cleared nineteen tons of ledgers and other business records from its offices. (Thorsheim, p. 186). In 1942, King George VI donated to a waste drive more than a ton of waste paper, consisting of a ‘large consignment of old books and manuscripts from the royal library’. The drive to recycle every scrap of paper was so intense that it was even suggested that blank endpapers should be cut from books. (Thorsheim, p. 184).
Thorsheim suggests that the destruction caused to Britain’s libraries and archives by these salvage paper drives was worse than that caused by enemy action. Voices of protest were raised. The bookseller W. Foyle lamented that ‘many priceless, rare and irreplaceable books’ were being destroyed, and described how recently he had identified in material sent for waste ‘a perfect copy of von Gerning’s Tours along the Rhine with colour plates by Ackermann together with other fine books’. The archivist Joan Wake said the destruction of records was being undertaken with a Teutonic thoroughness, stating that ‘If English history does not matter, all this destruction does not matter in the least and the sooner we boil down the Domesday Book to make glue for aeroplanes the better’ (Thorsheim, p. 182).
Joan Wake was speaking at a meeting of the British Records Association, which took the lead in trying to minimise the damage to historic archives caused by the wartime paper drives. The British Records Association had been founded in 1932 and took over work on records preservation which had been begun by the British Records Society three years previously. Changes in legislation concerning land tenure meant that solicitors no longer needed to retain many deeds and other records relating to property, and there was a risk that much of this material would simply be destroyed. The Records Preservation Section of the British Records Association offered a free service for appraising and sorting such records. This work has continued to the present day, and hundreds and hundreds of endangered records and historic papers have been saved by the work of the British Records Association during this time.
Much of this early rescue work by the British Records Association was undertaken by volunteers and historically the British Records Association has always been an inclusive body welcoming as members anyone interested in archives. While the Sociey of Archivists (now the Archives and Records Association)has taken the lead in the UK in professionalising the management of archives and in representing the interests ofv archivists as a profession, it has always been the British Records Association which has represented everyone with an interest in archives, such as owners of records, university scholars, family and local historians, and local councillors. Apart from its records preservation work, the British Records Association organises a well-supported conference, publishes an excellent journal Archives(recently spasmodic in appearance, but about to issue a chunky double issue) and produced a very useful series of handbooks called Archives and the User which includes such indispensable introductory volumes as Paul Harvey on Manorial Records, Elizabeth New on Seals and Sealing Practicesand Nat Alcock on Sources for the History of Houses.
I was Treasurer of the British Records Association for ten years from 1984 to 1994, and I was immensely saddened to hear that it is currently proposed that the Archives and Records Association should take over the British Records Association. It is suggested that there is a need for a single voice to speak for archives. I fear I don’t agree. The ARA was established as a professional association and it is still dominated by professional concerns. Unlike the British Records Association, the ARA is not open to anyone interested in archives — only working archivists can become full members, but others can only become affiliate members.
Can we be sure that professional archivists will indeed speak out on key issues affecting archives nowadays? To my mind, our modern equivalent of the risk from the wartime waste paper drives is the digitisation and effective commercialisation of vast swathes of public archives by companies such as Ancestry and Findmypast. Professional archivists, anxious to demonstrate that their archives are fully up-to-date and go ahead, are often complicit in this process and enthusiastically sign up with Findmypast and others, somehow believing they are increasing access. We need a body that is distinct from the archival profession to speak out and act on such matters. The British Records Association could be such a body, as it was during the Second World War.
When I visit any archive nowadays, it is full of family historians who are clearly enjoying their engagement with the records and would be keen to help preserve records and make them more widely available. The nature and significance of the archive is a fashionble research subject among a wide range of literary and historical scholars in the wake of Derrida’s and Foucault’s speculations on the matter. Archives as institutions seem more vibrant than ever. Surely there is scope for an inclusive, outward-looking advocate for archives which seeks to develop as wide a membership base as possible?
I am not convinced that the ARA, bowed down with the pressing professional concerns that affect many archivists, can grow into such a body. The BRA could become such a body, but it will need to stop resting on its wartime laurels, and take some hard decisions. It will need to become a low subscription, high membership body (as it was in the 1930s). It will need to become a less London-focussed and more regionally based body. It should become a prominent voice of UK archives on social media (there is no such voice at present) and should forge links with other constituencies, such as the digital humanities). It should create an innovative open access journal to replace Archives. Its handbooks coulds be freely available on the web.
While digital media have made it easier than ever to engage with archives, paradoxically the archives community seems to be becoming more inward-looking and less willing to engage with the full range of those who are interested in and enthusiastic with archives. Help change that by saving the British Records Association.
The acting chair of the British Records Association, Julia Sheppard, sent this message to the H-Albion list earlier this month which explains how you can help:
“The British Records Association brings together in equal partnership, all those with an interest in archives and their use, to explore and highlight their value to the research and wider community and the importance of their preservation. The membership consists almost equally of individuals and institutions, and includes historians, historical and research groups and institutions, custodians, and owners of archives. The BRA provides a forum for direct dialogue between its members to promote the use of archives, as evidenced by its highly successful annual conference. -the next ‘In a League of their Own’, is on 26 November http://www.britishrecordsassociation.org.uk/events/annual-conference-26-november-2015/ . It also plays a vital role in raising the profile of archives through its publications, including the authoritative journal, Archives.
There is now the threat of a take-over by the Archives and Records Association (ARA). Following a Council meeting, a proposal to abolish the organisation and transfer its functions and assets to the ARA is to be put to an Extraordinary General Meeting on 18 November. A group of concerned members believe this action is not in the best interests of the BRA or of the wider research community.
The BRA has the membership, ability and finances to continue to be a viable and useful body. Members now face a vote which could bring an end an organisation which has existed since 1932 and deprive the research and archives sector of an important independent voice.
If you are a member and have not received papers, please contact the BRA Office Manager at info@britishrecordsassociation.org.uk. Please contact me at mail@joolsonline.co.uk, if you would like more information.”
So — if you are a member of the British Records Association, come along on Wednesday at 2pm at Swedenborg Hall in London and make your views known.
If you are not a member of the British Records Association, but would be interested in joining a revived and reformed BRA, please write to me or to Julia Sheppard.


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