Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be in Wellington, New Zealand as an invited representative of The National Archives at Future Perfect 2012. I was asked to give a presentation that focused on some of the technical work we do in Digital Preservation, with a nod to the strategy the department has adopted over the last few years and continues to pursue (energetically) in 2012 and through 2013 with the new work being completed on the Digital Records Infrastructure Project.
My presentation was entitled Survival of the Bits and focused loosely on what I perceive to have been an evolution in our work throughout the last few years. The presentation is online and can be viewed here. I received positive feedback about the talk over the course of the two day event, many of the comments praised the honesty of what was presented. The struggle we have in digital preservation is there is so much we have to do, or at least a lot we might want to consider doing to preserve digital records for future generations. We can either try and attack everything at the same time – ultimately this would result in spreading resource too thin and not achieving very much – or we can prioritise and achieve results with the most pressing of problems. Within the department we discussed the idea of an ‘unholy trinity’ of digital preservation: volume, ability to ingest, and knowing what we’ve got. With the aforementioned focus of 2012 and 2013 I suggested to the conference that we are really beginning to see an impact in addressing each of these challenges, but our work in format identification is the most advanced and a challenge it looks like we’re well on the way to beating.
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There are few topics likely to induce an eyes-glazed-over response more quickly than the words ‘environmental standards’ for heritage collections. I am pleased to report that the just published ‘Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections (BSI: PAS: 198)’ marks a significant departure from the usual, and is well worth a read.
The National Archives has taken a lead in developing a new environmental standard for the cultural sector, in part-response to a statement issued by the UK National Museum Directors’ Conference that, ‘museums need to approach long-term collection care in a way that does not require excessive use of energy, while recognising the duty of care to collections.’ There was general agreement that it is time to utilise the research undertaken in the last ten years, and to shift policies for environmental control, loan conditions and guidance given to architects and engineers from the prescriptive advice to something based on the sensitivity of the objects, the expected life of the collection, and local priorities. This isn’t about relaxing environmental standards, its about making informed decisions for a collection.
- The home front in black and white: a survivor of an air raid receives first aid, Aldwych, central London, 30 June 1944. (From a photograph album with the document reference AIR 20/6185)
Luxury is not a word that naturally springs to mind when we think about the Second World War, but last month I went to a fascinating lecture that connected these two topics. Design historian Neil Taylor’s talk, which formed part of the Archives for London seminar series, offered a thought-provoking insight into the place of luxury goods in the UK’s wartime economy.
I was struck by Neil’s observation that the black and white photographs of the period encourage us to think of the ‘home front’ as drab and grey, when the truth was rather more complicated. For many of the economic and social elite, life remained rather colourful. The onset of war actually opened up new luxury markets. (My favourite example was a crocodile-skin gas mask box!) In later years, rationing and the ‘make-do and mend’ spirit encouraged a brisk trade in high-quality second-hand furniture and clothing. A little luxury certainly helped to boost the morale of those who could afford it.
Although most wartime industry was given over to munitions or essential goods, a small trade in manufacturing and selling luxury items, such as silk scarves, continued throughout the war. Most of these were intended for the export market, particularly to the USA. The government encouraged this small-scale export of luxury items because it made wealthy Americans more likely to think of Britain and use their influence support its cause.
In 1999 a daring young man with brilliant blue eyes stood atop the Uncompaghre Plateau in Western Colorado. Jaw held tight to stop his quivering bottom lip, he looked up to the azure sky and fought back the tears.
‘Sorry kid. The Brontosaurus doesn’t exist.’
In five simple words (and one Latin one) the last remnant of his childhood lay dashed upon the hard dirt floor of the Dry Mesa Quarry.
That young palaeontologist was me and while my site director did at least offer gentle words of condolence for my loss. I was left wanting.
‘How could there not be a Brontosaurus? Why were people not angrier about this? And if Brontosaurus didn’t exist… whose giant shin bone was I currently wrapping in plaster?’
An important part of our work in the Advice and Records Knowledge department is answering questions from the public regarding the records we hold here at The National Archives. In what we call ‘specialist referrals’ questions are filtered through to the staff member with the most appropriate specialism to answer, who will use their knowledge of the records and the context around them to respond as accurately as possible.
An enquiry came my way recently regarding the ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets that were distributed by the government during the 1970s and 1980s in order to provide advice to members of the public should Britain be subject to a nuclear attack. I directed the enquirer towards some original documents – INF 6/2294, INF 6/2502, and INF 6/2531 – but my colleague suggested I take a look in the archive of public information films available on our website.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Central Office of Information (COI) in 2006, a selection of some of their most memorable films were added to our website. Indeed, amongst those are two made in 1975 relating to the ‘Protect and Survive’ series: one entitled ‘Action After Warnings’, the other ‘Casualties’.
Protect and Survive - public information films released in 1975
Sharp-eyed visitors to The National Archives website will have spotted some big changes last week. For the first time since the website was launched in this form, we have added a new headline section. The bright green Archives Sector section now joins About Us, Records, Information Management and Shop Online.
Archives Sector website on launch day
This is a really important change for us, a key step on the path we are taking as we develop our role as archive sector leaders for England. The new section is designed to support archive services and their funders to develop and improve provision across the entire sector. That means more sustainable services, excellent preservation for the future, and increasing the options and quality of access to archives for all users.