Editing History: Why Physical Archives are Essential in a Digital World

Physical archive

The preservation of information over time has always been a significant challenge for humanity, and despite our technological advancements we have yet to develop a truly permanent form of record.

This article is written by Genevieve Adeline. Genevieve is Information Assistant at Linklaters law library. She was awarded Bruynzeel’s 2017 bursary to attend the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Conference. Our best solution has been to create multiple copies stored in various locations in the hopes that at least one of the copies will survive – this was also Charlemagne’s solution 1,200 years ago. The vast majority of the classical literature that survives to this day is as a result of Charlemagne’s early medieval version of a peer-to-peer file sharing network that involved the secure transportation of texts between monasteries to be copied and stored.

Lost Scientific Discoveries

The difficulty and expense of preserving information has been a particular problem for science as discoveries and developments were repeatedly lost to time and the work had to be started again from scratch. A prime example of this is the work of 1st century CE mathematician Hero of Alexandria, who invented pneumatic and wind-powered technology, a steam engine, a coin-operated vending machine and a self-driving programmable cart (among other things).

Skewed Perspective

Beyond the loss of scientific discoveries, the inability to preserve records has resulted in a skewed perspective of social history as we can only base our knowledge on the information that has survived. At the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference ,which took place in Brighton in September 2017, several speakers made comments that demonstrated how important physical records are to maintaining the integrity of the historic record. Giles Mandelbrote, Librarian at Lambeth Palace Library, commented that theft of books from the Library had changed the perception of the collection during the 40 years until their return. The absence of the most commercially appealing books made it appear that the collectors had a narrower range of interests – the theft not only made certain books unavailable, it also recontextualised the books that were left.

Unlock Hidden Histories

Media Archivist Stacey Anderson, from South West Film and Television Archive, made the point that visual records of the past can unlock hidden histories for which there are no other record, particularly as a great deal of the visual media that exists has been created by amateurs. We can see an example of this in the story of Vivian Maier, the nanny whose prolific work as a street photographer only came to light posthumously after the contents of her storage unit was auctioned off. Maier had taken upwards of 150,000 photographs on the streets of Chicago and New York, focusing on the people at the fringes of mid-century urban America – her choice of subjects possibly influenced by her domestic work.

Photography and film media are relatively new methods of recording our lives and most of our evidence of the past exists in the form of written text. This means there is a significant bias towards the experiences of educated people in a position to create records others considered worthy of preservation in their own era. We view most of the past through the lens of the dominant social group, and the result is that minority, oppressed or underprivileged voices are either absent or reported by those outside of the group. If we look at the way folk tales – oral narratives originated by working class communities – were preserved as fairy tales (versions of folk tales edited or rewritten by middle and upper class individuals) we can see how the reliance on the dominant group results in a loss of context. The academic Jack Zipes argues that the recurring spinning or weaving trope that we find in so many stories, credited to male collectors and authors, indicates that the stories were probably originated by women to entertain each other while they were making cloth, traditionally a female occupation.

Editing History

Another problem that has skewed our view of history is the need for certain groups to maintain a level of secrecy, leading to the perception that minority groups were smaller than they really were. The problem of a lack of records is compounded by people intentionally obscuring histories that they consider scandalous – such was the case with Anne Lister, a prominent early 19th century Yorkshire landowner who was openly lesbian. Lister kept a diary (partly written in code) that explicitly detailed her romantic relationships, but when they were first read in the 1890s they were hidden away (with one of the readers suggesting they should be burned) and they weren’t uncovered again until the 1980s.

Physical Authentication of Digital Records

At the RBSCG conference, British Library Archivist Will Prentice commented that even after digitisation it was important to maintain original records, in part because they can act as an authenticator for the digital copy to ensure the copy hasn’t been altered. The editing of history to suit contemporary socio-political aims is not a new phenomenon, attempts were made to obliterate all records of the pharaoh Hatshepsut in the years after her death in 1458 BCE, and photo-manipulation dates back at least as far as the American Civil War. At present there are many groups using edited versions of history to justify their political positions, and as long as we continue to preserve and maintain our physical records we can use them to demonstrate the truth. Unfortunately, it will become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction in the future – earlier this year a speech simulator was launched that can mimic any voice and create a lip-synced video to match. In the digital future our standards of evidence will need to change, but as we look back we are increasingly filling out the gaps in our history.



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