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Sunday, 4 August 2013

Digitisation: not the answer to the space problem with archives

There's recently been quite a furore about the controversial decision of Barnado's children's charity to digitise its remarkable collection of photographs by Dr Barnardo of the 'waifs and strays' whom he was providing with a refuge in Stepney, dating back to at least 1875. While digitising these will provide much wider access to this important collection, concerns have been raised that the original photographs were in line for destruction once this had taken place.

As I have previously commented, digitisation, though a tremendous asset in increasingly availability of historical records to those unable to visit them in person, cannot be considered a robust preservation medium. Photographic and other historians have also raised the issue that the originals may well provide evidence which is not going to be harvested through the digitisation process.

A post on the Voluntary Action History Society blog summarises the current state of play and raises the continuing issue of 'third sector' bodies which hold historical archives which are no longer relevant to their work in the present. While Barnardo's may no longer adhere to Dr Barnard's own practices, but is still closer in aim than some other bodies - the archives of the National Association for the Prevention of  Consumption (prior to their transfer to the Wellcome Library) remained in the custody of a successor body whose concerns had shifted considerably with the decline of TB as a pressing public health problem.

The blog post suggests the sale of the archive as one option, a strategy that raises significant concerns given that much of it must surely remain subject to Data Protection issues. However, it appears that there have been some expressions of interest in providing a home for the archive, and it is to be hoped that it will be placed in some suitable repository where it can be adequately cared for and made available for research.

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