Dr Deborah Lee-Talbot
The libraries and archives of Europe have been described by the Australian researcher George Collinridge, as the ‘great centres and stores of knowledge’ (2018, p. 5). If that is so, the recent proposal to destroy records from Britain needs to be a concern for many. On 15 December 2023, as people were distracted by the festive season delights and indulgences, the British Ministry of Justice and Mike Freer MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, issued a press release. They ambitiously proposed to improve access to historic wills and save £4.5 million per year by digitising department records. Wills are often the last official documents of peoples’ complex lives. These words are evidence of what people valued, what they gained over a lifetime, what wealth was acquired and what was not, and what kinds of people they were. They can be analysed according to race, gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. The department acknowledges that archives are significant as personal documents and are ‘very important in legal terms’. Yet, the Ministry is proposing, after the passing of 25 years, or just one generation of researchers, that the cultural and social knowledge that is preserved in the everyday wills from the 19th century onwards be destroyed.
Focusing on creating a cost-effective preservation policy for records dated from 1858, the proposal would destroy the supposedly “mundane” records of everyday people. Only the wills of ‘noteworthy’ people that ‘hold historical importance’ would be preserved for over 25 years.
This new proposal aligns with a historic British trend of destroying, or hindering access to, records about the past. From the 1950s to the 1970s, record-keepers in the British Empire sought to create archives representing a “no-fault” colonial past. The systematic purging of Colonial Office records from Africa, or at least their transferral away from the newly independent citizens, was intended to protect Her Majesty’s government from being held accountable for the social and cultural destruction of communities and personal trauma. The gradual uncovering of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents in the 1950s by Caroline Elkins’s, meticulous archival research for Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya prompted a formal apology and remuneration for Kenyans. The recognition and legal processes here took far longer than the 25 years proposed by the new policy for wills currently held in the Ministry archive. Perhaps this public’s increasing awareness about this tendency towards destruction is why the public has been invited to consult with the British Ministry of Justice about the storage and retention of wills.
The Ministry of Justice could turn to Britain’s former or remaining colonies to determine the best course of action regarding the problematic issue of record retention. Many settler-colonial nations, such as Australia, rely on copies, or surrogates, of historical records from Britain. Their understanding of the complexity of the digitisation process is well worth consideration.
Copying historic records, be it on microfilm or digital screens, is valuable as modernisation improves access to collections. The National Library of Australia demonstrated the value of copying colonial records when it, in association with the State Library of New South Wales, collaborated from the 1930s to create the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP). In the late twentieth century, the AJCP project concluded microfilming Colonial Office, private and research documents held in the British Isles for researchers in Australasia. In 2017, a modernisation fund received by the National Library supported the digitisation of the AJCP microfilms by creating more than 8000 digital pages. By November 2022, the National Library was the caretaker of 15+ billion files, including web content, musical scores, maps, oral histories, folk recordings, digital photographs, personal archives and digitised physical collections, including the AJCP. When National Library received this funding, it did not destroy the master copies of microfilms, and other institutions with copies have retained theirs. The process of accessing digitised records relies on users having access to a computer, at the very least, and an internet connection with enough bandwidth to download high-resolution images. The retention of the microfilmed AJCP records at various research institutions and libraries across Australasia ensures those without digital literacy or computer access can use these films. The modernisation processes, such as those the Ministry is trying to achieve, should not be synonymous with processes of destruction.
Modernising archival and library collections through digitisation improves our understanding of the past. UNESCO argued in 2003 that the ‘digital heritage of all regions, countries and communities should be preserved and made accessible’ as knowledge of a diverse past assists with understanding our complex societies. When researchers access digitised and physical records, the evidence that comes into focus can highlight the comments and behaviours of previously marginalised or discredited groups. Examining records not previously deemed “important” by colonial institutions, like the London Missionary Society, has revealed women who were politically active and powerful, in Australasia in the late nineteenth century. Women who had been previously categorised as “not proper” and “unorthodox”, in other words, unimportant, are now crucial to our understanding of the development of Christianity in Papua and New Guinea; a religion followed by 98 per cent of citizens, according to the last national census. It took 140 years for the records of the London Missionary Society to reveal to researchers the vital role of women in missions.
Threats against digitised cultural heritage are increasing and require resolution to provide the public with access to their cultural heritage. In 2018, Stanley Shanapinda, a Research Fellow at La Trobe University, responded to the Australian government’s report regarding the importance of securely preserving Australia’s digital heritage. One recommendation was not to limit the preservation of materials to one site. Shanapinda asserted that historical records needed to be both digitised and stored offline at a secure location. The value of such a process is demonstrated by recent cyber-attacks on cultural institutions. The New York Times recently revealed the extent of cyber-attacks on American museums: the online collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas have all been targeted recently. Should this process of digitisation-destruction continue, then the ramifications of cost-cutting digitisation would be awe-inspiring for the worst reason: the public’s loss of access to the physical documents and objects that Western societies rely on to create narratives of their pasts.
There is also little point in digitising records if the issue of technological obsolesce is not addressed. The process of protecting digital cultural heritage, much of which was created in the 1980s and 1990s, was highlighted as a concern by the National Library of Australia in March 2003, when they delivered the UNESCO Digital Library guidelines for the preservation of digital heritage. A problem discussed as being crucial to the development of contemporary archives was the issue of digital obsolescence. This is when digital data cannot be accessed due to inaccessible hardware or software. Aware of the significant financial, social and cultural impact of the loss of digital records- be they born digital or digitised later to improve user access- the Australian government is investing in the nation’s digital cultural heritage. In 2023, Swinburne University’s Professor Melanie Swalwell launched the Australia Emulation Network, a means to bring ‘digital artefacts back to life for emulation and use’. By bringing back into circulation obsolete computer hardware and software environments, the project, explained Prof James Verdon, intended to ‘enable legacy digital artefacts to become content that can be played and interacted with using minimal IT resources’. This process would benefit both public and private researchers.
Creating digital heritage is not a reason to discredit or forget moments and people from our “mundane” past. Combining digitisation with the destruction of records sets a dangerous precedent for addressing the financial issues currently facing record-keeping institutions. Modernising collections and records is a positive development, but issues of digital literacy and the digital divide are negatives that must be considered. The settler-colonial archives of Australia and America are places where copies and digitisation are foundational to national collections and are a great place for the British Ministry to start considering these important issues.
This article was written on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people