Monday, 12 July 2010

Are Potential Archives Disappearing?

It looks like the 2011 census may be the last time that statistical information is collected from the British public in the traditional way. Apparently, it will cost around £482 million which does seem like quite a lot.

I suspect that, as an archives worker, I should be horrified by this news but, if the same kind of information is being collected cheaply from the myriad other databases of information that now exist, maybe it will not make a huge difference to archives of the future?

Besides, because there is an 100 year closure period on personal information from censuses, we can only inspect up to the 1901 census which was carried out by enumerators who went around houses and interviewed the inhabitants. The last few censuses were just dropped off to be filled in by people themselves and there is no telling what nonsense and mistakes they contain.

In 2001, for instance, several Star Wars fans put down 'Jedi' as their religious affiliation in an effort to see it officially recognized as a faith. Perhaps the new proposed methods will be more accurate.

What worries us here is emails. Yes, they are speedy and wonderful and we are no technophobes; technology has made cataloguing and finding archives so much easier, but vast swathes of our correspondence is disappearing. People delete emails and indeed entire email accounts and all of those letters are gone forever. The press were ridiculing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for being slow to cotton on to electronic mail a few years ago but at least we know that their papers will eventually be available for posterity.

The Balfour collection, Margaret Tait's papers and the hundreds of deposits made by the public are full of exciting, heart-breaking, furious, funny and passionate letters which can provide a clear view of contemporary life on the day that they were written.

Will we still be reading emails, blogs and websites from today in three hundred years time? Am I perhaps the millionth person to have made this, by now quite tired, point?

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