In the next couple of posts I will try to set out what the development of the UK Government Web Archive means for students of contemporary history and how it is a valuable resource for those studying official records. I recently discussed some of these ideas at the Archives and Society seminar when presenting alongside colleagues from our Web Continuity department. 1 In this post I will show how developments in the web – and government adaption of new practices, such as blogging and social media – are reflected in content captured into the UK Government Web Archive and what that says about relationships between the public and the state.
Defining the ‘contemporary’ element of the study of contemporary history can be a difficult exercise. As with other temporal definitions, boundaries and parameters are fluid and ultimately somewhat arbitrary. For example, when I started in my role about two years ago we saw contemporary history as a post-1945 study (a definition borrowed from, amongst others, the Institute of Contemporary British History) but to ensure that First World War commemoration is appropriately covered we now cover the post-1900 period. Brian Brivati in The Contemporary History Handbook (one of the thickest handbooks I’ve seen) moved the starting point the other way and thought that contemporary history could be defined as starting after the Suez Crisis, and therefore a post-1956 study. 2
Of course, it would not be possible to study contemporary history without knowledge of preceding periods as events, ideologies and personalities do not neatly package up into time-bound periods. One thing rarely discussed, though, is the end point of contemporary history, or the point when written sources are less readily available, a point particularly pertinent when it comes to official government records.