The archive from your desk?

The archive from your desk?

A news item has just appeared concerning a policy which has been introduced in the Finnish national archive system. It can be accessed at the URL below. The policy concerns matters of archival storage and conservation, and it entails making digitally-scanned copies of government papers and reports, and destroying paper copies of these. The rationale is clear, that it costs a great deal to keep paper volumes because this takes up a lot of shelf-space and also person power in terms of maintenance and conservation. It seems eminently sensible, expressed like this.

So think about it, not in reference to government reports or policy statements, but regarding some different kinds of paper volumes. Okay, we’ll scan a Guttenberg bible and get rid of the remaining copies, which take up a lot of space and enormous maintenance costs (all that security). Let’s also deal with first editions of Shakespeare while we’re at it. Then there are vast numbers of handwritten letters by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf  and many other literary figures and these too are costly to conserve and make available and can be reduced to a small section of a hard drive. Oh yes, what about the many Fonds in Paris of papers from the revolutions of 1789, 1848 up to 1968, so many, so much cost! a nice DVD or online set will sort out these. Hmm, also things from the Russian Revolution…. And… and… and…

Sounds good? or what?

This is to make the point emotively, but it does make an important point: originals can be so important that any idea that they might be replaced by new technology versions is alarming. It might be countered by pointing out that the policy alluded to above is not – at the moment – concerned with original manuscripts, and that this is just making a fuss about something that isn’t going to happen. My experience suggests a more alarming scenario. So does the news report in question, for it suggests that a number of countries are intending to extend this policy from governmental materials to ‘information’ more widely.

The former vice chancellor of a well-known South African university, contemplating the costs involved in building a new library and new manuscript and archives facilities, and being a computer bod by background, told me he had worked out that the entirety of the paper involved could be scanned and would take up effectively little space in a combination of cyberspace and hard storage forms. The gleam in his eye was unsettling, and while this suggestion did not come to pass, this was for happenstance reasons rather than his decision, and the existence of the wonderful – and new – Cory Library at Rhodes University in Grahamstown stands testament to the fact that it did not. However, the more that new technologies appear with ever more all-encompassing storage capacities, the more tempting it is for those in administrative, policy and finance roles to think ‘creatively’ and eye up the paper and count the ‘savings’.

A version of this has happened in the main library at the University of Edinburgh, where older books across the disciplines have been removed from the shelves and put in storage facilities elsewhere, so that retrieving them takes days, and knowing about their existence takes considerable work, replacing the role of serendipity in finding things unexpectedly when wandering around the shelves. The ridiculous premise behind this is that anything that is older is not really relevant nor is it read. I sat on the University committee that decided this, and it was only the postgraduates and undergraduate students present and me who objected! Other academics from the sciences and the administrators were gung-ho in favour…

How did I respond to the  South African VC mentioned above ? With a technologically-based reason for rejecting his view that his proposal was desirable. It is also my response to what is happening in the Finnish National Archives, in whose wonderful reading rooms I have in the past worked on first editions of Olive Schreiner publications in translation. It was to the effect that it is sensible to keep things that are precious in the lowest form of technology available, because this is always transferable, if wanted, to whatever the newest technology is. Whereas intermediate technologies quickly become redundant and soon are no longer transferable from the intermediate to advanced technologies. Paper and pencil and other low technology forms rule! Well, of course low technology in all its forms ought to, but suggesting this is like Mrs Worthington sweeping back the waves.


Last updated: 26 May 2016


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