Thursday, 12 May 2011

Scottish archives portals - thoughts

I’ve been reading with interest some comments on a strategic meeting of Scotland’s archive sector yesterday, with comments from the University of Dundee and Strathclyde University amongst others. The meeting seems to have been about the next phase of online archive portals development.

One comment in particular from Strathclyde on Twitter has me somewhat excited that it was even discussed, a comment that the Community Archives Wales (www.ourwales.org.uk) was held up as an exciting model of a site. I couldn’t agree more, and made the exact same point last year at a meeting held in the ScotlandsPeople Centre about possible ways ahead not just for the centre but other government institutions such as the NAS/NRS etc.

As part of that meeting I suggested a few thoughts about possible future online developments that I know I would love to see here in Scotland, and a community archive site was one of them, a concept which seems to have been successfully explored elsewhere in the UK. There are already a few such sites online such as Community Archives Wales, People's Collection Wales (www.peoplescollectionwales.com) the Cambridgeshire Community Archives Network (www.ccan.co.uk) and StoryVault (www.storyvault.com), which host archives of stories and documents submitted by people from all over the world. I have yet to find a permanent Scottish wide national memory bank like this, and think one would be a very useful development.

Last year I was interviewed for a BBC radio series where I was asked to talk about the history of R & J Dicks, a Glasgow based shoe firm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The reason was that the BBC had created a community site as part of the 100 greatest objects project they had run, and Radio Scotland was doing a tie in series to run with it. On this site, somebody had submitted images of several items for the firm that I had never seen before, from his own private collection. I was asked to participate merely for a lead in to the collection with a relevant story connected to the firm, as my great grandfather died in Belgium in WW1 as a civilian, having stayed there when war broke out to look after two of the firm’s shops shops, which he managed. The material in the collection posted was unique, and that’s the kind of use these archives can have, unearthing real gems that may never be found in an archive. We all have extraordinary and unique documentary material in drawers and cupboards which will be a shame to see disappear in years to come.

Another possibility I would also love to see is a user operated Scottish wiki system, providing information to enhance the already useful online material generated by the National Records of Scotland and local archives. FamilySearch and the National Archives at Kew operate systems like this, for example, in conjunction with their own sites (though I believe the TNA site is under threat financially just now). Providing online information does not just have to be a top down experience, the public is as much of a resource as the archives themselves. The NRS has just allowed photography in its reading room – if it created a wiki site that took transcribed contributions from people concerning collections they have looked at, would that in time take some pressure off some of the resources themselves?

Whether this is on the cards I have no idea, but it will be interesting to see what transpires in the next few months and years online!

Chris

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